The Writer’s Almanac for August 7, 2018

“Riding the Red Line” by Eric Nixon. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On the subway
On a hot summer night
Riding the Red Line
Outbound to Alewife
So is everyone else
Standing in the packed car
Staring blankly at the
Reflections in the window
Stealing looks every so often
At the pretty mid-20-something
Sitting on the seat near me
Noticing that she is
Glancing sideways
At the paper the person
Next to her is reading
Well not so much reading
Since he’s got his eyes
Looking to the side at
Someone else behind me
Everyone is pretending
To look somewhere neutral
Everyone is experiencing
Ulterior motives checking out
Everyone else around them
Trying to be all sneaky about it
With each stop
The people change
The dynamics change
Keeps the subway car
Fresh and interesting
Just as long as she doesn’t leave
I’ll be happy standing here
Packed among strangers
With wandering eyes
And stealing glances
Alongside them
On this hot, hot night

Today is the birthday of the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (1876). She attended a teachers college and then married an army officer, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in 1895. They lived in Java and Sumatra for a few years, and that’s where she picked up her eventual byname. “Mata Hari” is a Malay term for the sunrise, and means “the eye of the day.” The MacLeod marriage was marked by infidelity on both sides. He gave her syphilis, which was in turn inherited by their two children. After their son died, the parents began to hate each other. They returned to Holland and divorced, and MacLeod took out an ad in the local paper telling shopkeepers not to give his ex-wife any credit, because he would not be supporting her any longer. In order to make some money, she began dancing professionally in Paris in 1905, and occasionally worked in a high-class brothel.

The exact nature of her spy activities is not clear, but she probably didn’t engage in much actual espionage. She was well known by sight all over Europe. She had apparently sold some outdated information about France to the Germans in 1916, and then later made a deal with the head of French intelligence to spy on the Germans in exchange for a pass to visit her Russian lover in the eastern war zone. The French became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she never was able to provide much useful information, so she was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917. One of her prosecutors later admitted, “There wasn’t enough evidence [against her] to flog a cat.”

On this date in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef in French Polynesia (books by this author). The Norwegian ethnologist had set out from Peru the previous April, determined to prove that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl and his five-man crew did carry some modern technology, like a radio, navigational equipment, and watches, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The body was made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes, and had gaps between the logs for the water to drain out. The cabin was built of bamboo and had a thatched roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it after a legendary Incan sun god who was believed to have walked off across the Pacific.

In three and a half months, the raft traveled 4,300 nautical miles, weathered two major storms, and proved that Peruvian Incans could have made the voyage themselves. Heyerdahl wrote a book about the adventure, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1948), and made a documentary film of the same name.

Today is the birthday of author and editor Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). Her father was the critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman, and she grew up in a literary household, making castles out of the books in her father’s library. She was working as a reporter when she got an assignment to write for The New Yorker about a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents’ difficulty dealing with the American medical system. The New Yorker decided not to print the article, so Fadiman turned it into her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). It took her eight years to finish the book.

She’s also written two collections of essays. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs. And in her other collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007), she writes about her many obsessions, from her childhood butterfly collection, to the lost art of letter writing, to English essayist Charles Lamb.  

At 7:15 in the morning on this day in 1974, a slight figure dressed in black stepped off of the edge the World Trade Center’s north tower and onto a wire he’d secretly strung across to the south tower. For the next 45 minutes, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers a total of eight times as crowds gathered below to watch him span the void. Suspended a quarter of a mile in the air, Petit knelt and lay down on the wire, once even looking down to the courtyard below as he reveled in the culmination of six years of planning what he called “le coup.” Told that police planned to send a helicopter to pluck him from his perch, Petit finally surrendered himself to the waiting NYPD, later claiming that their rough treatment of him was the most dangerous part of his stunt.

Petit’s astonishing high-wire act made him an instant celebrity and garnered affection for the brand-new buildings, which had been criticized for a lack of character. A number of writers count Petit’s performance as an inspiration, including Paul Auster, who translated Petit’s book On the High Wire from French and helped him find a publisher. Recently, Petit served as muse to Colum McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award, took as its central, driving image that of a man balancing between two towers, seeming to walk on air.

On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals officially and finally lifted the ban on the book Ulysses by James Joyce (books by this author). A serialized excerpt in an American literary journal had been declared obscene by the courts in 1921; when the novel was published a year later in Paris, it became a hot item on the black market. It remained outlawed until 1933, when Random House arranged to have a smuggled copy discovered by immigration officers, allowing the publisher to challenge the ban. The seized copy had been carefully doctored to include the rave reviews of important literary figures, since it would be the one submitted as evidence. The judge agreed that the book was not obscene or pornographic and struck down the ban, and an appeal a year later upheld that decision.

On this day in 1846, Gustave Flaubert (books by this author) wrote a stunning letter to his lover, poet Louise Colet.

The two writers met at a sculptor’s studio in Paris. Colet was married when she and Flaubert began their wild love affair. She’d gotten married young, to a Parisian professor of music, in order to escape a life in the French countryside. Once in Paris, she became a famous poet. During the eight years of his affair with Colet, Flaubert wrote his masterpiece Madam Bovary, about a woman who seeks out adulterous affairs in order to escape from provincial life.

On this day in 1846 — 164 years ago today — Flaubert wrote to Colet:

“Separated, destined to see one another but rarely, it is frightful … and yet what is to be done? I cannot conceive how I managed to leave you … your image will remain for me suffused with poetry and tenderness, as was last night’s sky in the milky vapours of its silvery mist. This month I will come to see you, I will be with you one big whole day […]

“You are certainly the only woman that I have loved. You are the only woman that I have ventured to wish to please. Thank you, thank you […]”

The following day, Flaubert began another long intense letter to Colet. In it, he wrote:
“I’ll arrive some evening about six. We’ll set the night ablaze! I’ll be your desire, you’ll be mine, and we’ll gorge ourselves on each other to see whether we can be satiated. Never! No, never! Your heart is an inexhaustible spring, you let me drink deep, it floods me, penetrates me, I drown. Oh! The beauty of your face, all pale and quivering under my kisses!”

**Translation Note**

The first letter (Aug. 7, here beginning “Separated, destined” is translated by John Charles Tarver and appears in his Gustave Flaubert as seen in his works and correspondence, published in 1895.

The second letter (Aug. 8, beginning with “My Deplorable mania”) is translated by Francis Steegmuller and appears in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, published in 1979.


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

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From Charlotte, NC with legendary blues singer Nappy Brown, big time country artist Suzy Bogguss, prodigious ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, and national banjo champion Charles Wood.

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It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

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It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941), who played the last show of his farewell tour last month in his hometown of Queens, New York.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

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It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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