The Writer’s Almanac for August 6, 2018

“Break, Break, Break” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Public Domain. (buy now)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.


It was on this day in 1964 during a speech in Congress that Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska said, “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy.”

Senator Gruening gave an impassioned plea before the House on this day, urging them to oppose further escalation. But the next day, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing expanded military action in Vietnam. Ernest Gruening was one of only two senators to oppose the resolution; the other one was Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon.

Biographies about Gruening include Robert David Johnson’s Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (1998) and Clause Naske’s Ernest Gruening: Alaska’s Greatest Governor (2004).


It’s the birthday of the man who wrote the famous words “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and also “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” That’s poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, (books by this author) born on this day in Lincolnshire, England (1809).

He’s one of the greatest poets in the English language. He’s the one who wrote “The Lady of Shalott,” that mesmerizing melodramatic ballad based on King Arthur legends, which begins:

“On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye, / That clothe the wold and meet the sky; / And thro’ the field the road runs by / To many-tower’d Camelot;”

He’s the author of “Tears, idle tears” and “Crossing the Bar” and “Break, break, break.” Many consider his masterpiece to be the poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” an elegy for his best friend, Arthur Hallam, whom he’d known since college days. The men were soon to be brothers-in-law, since Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister. But Hallam died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in 1833. Tennyson outlived him by nearly 60 years; he was grief-stricken for decades, and suicidal for long stretches.

He published “In Memoriam A.H.H.” in 1850; it was 17 years after he’d begun working on the poem. In it he writes about how his friend’s death, and his own grief, affected his belief in a Christian God. He wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”


Today is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin. He was born in Lochfield, Scotland, in 1881. He came into his lab one morning in 1928 to discover he’d left the lid off of a petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. The culture had become contaminated by a blue-green mold, and Fleming noted that right around the moldy spots, the bacteria were no longer growing. He isolated the mold and determined it was Penicillium notatum. His first thought was that it would be useful as a surface disinfectant, and he later proved that it was effective against bacterial influenza. He later said, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”


The first execution by electric chair happened on this date in 1890. For almost 10 years, the state of New York had been looking for a more humane method of capital punishment to replace hanging. Alfred Southwick, a dentist from Buffalo, was on the committee. He’s the first one to suggest using electric current, because he’d heard a story about a man who had accidentally touched an exposed power line and died quickly and painlessly.

The development of the electric chair was taking place right in the middle of the decade-long “War of Currents” currently raging in the new field of electrical power. Thomas Edison preferred direct current; Edison’s rivals, including George Westinghouse, favored alternating current. The two factions battled over which current was more effective and safe. When word got out that the state was considering using electricity for capital punishment, Edison quickly realized that no one would want the same kind of current running through their homes that was also being used to execute convicted felons. So he proclaimed that Westinghouse’s alternating current should be used for the electric chair because it was so clearly lethal. Harold Brown, an Edison employee, was hired to design a chair to restrain the condemned and deliver the fatal shock through alternating current. The committee selected the Edison design. Edison’s smear campaign against Westinghouse was so successful that, even though Westinghouse protested the electric chair, refused to supply any AC generators, and funded the appeals of death row inmates, being “Westinghoused” became a euphemism for death by electrocution.

The chair’s first victim was William Kemmler. The execution wasn’t an immediate success. The “state electrician” only gave Kemmler enough juice to knock him out, so they had to try again, but it took a while for the generator to build up enough power to deliver the lethal voltage. The execution took about eight minutes, and Westinghouse later said, “They would have done better using an axe.” 


On this day in 1786, Scotland’s beloved poet and bard Robert Burns (books by this author), best remembered for romantic classics like “Auld Lang Syne” and “A Red, Red Rose,” stood before his church a third and final time as public penance for “antenuptial fornication” with Jean Armour.

Pregnant with fraternal twins she would name after herself and Robert, Armour had been hustled off to stay with relatives in another town when her parents learned of her condition earlier that spring. Her father, hoping there was still time to snag a suitor with better prospects than the penniless Burns, destroyed a document the poet had given Armour promising marriage. But it was all for naught when the local church caught wind of the scandal. Armour officially acknowledged her pregnancy and named Burns as the father.

Whether or not Armour was coerced, Burns declared all this a “desertion” on her part, and stood before the church the required three times to receive a certificate declaring him a single man. Burns may have had motives beyond feeling jilted; letters he sent friends that summer suggested he’d already found a new paramour and may have impregnated her too. In any case, there was at least one other illegitimate child to provide for: “Dear bought Bess,” as Burns called her, a daughter born to a servant girl shortly before he’d taken up with Jean Armour. When the publication of his first book seemed likely, Burns, fearing the Armours would make a claim on his future earnings, turned his estate over to his brother to ensure Bess would be taken care of.

Burns left for Edinburgh and found success — with both poetry and women — in the months that followed the birth of the twins. He returned to town less than a year from the day he’d been declared a single man, and Jean Armour’s parents, impressed by his new wealth, received him with open arms. So did their daughter Jean, and she became pregnant with a second set of twins.

Eventually — despite claims that he would never again extend her the offer, despite calling her “ungrateful” and “foolish,” despite comparing her to a “farthing taper” next to the “meridian sun” of another woman he was busy wooing — Burns married Jean Armour. She bore his philandering with patience and apparent good cheer, just as she continued to bear him children — the ninth was born on the day of Robert Burns’ funeral in 1796. “Our Robbie should have had twa [two] wives,” she is said to have exclaimed upon taking in one of his illegitimate daughters to raise.

For all his affairs, Burns was also dealt with rather leniently by the church, which had the custom of making men in his circumstances sit on a “creepie-chair,” or a low stool reserved for public humiliation. When Burns reported for penance on this day 225 years ago, he was allowed to stand in his usual pew.


Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare (books by this author), died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare’s child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only “my second-best bed.” Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it’s an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare’s sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns — a Shakespearian favorite — that could identify the subject as his wife: “hate away” for “Hathaway” and “And saved my life” for “Anne saved my life.”

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

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


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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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.

Read More
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.”

Read More
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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