The Writer’s Almanac for August 8, 2018

“Never give all the heart” by William Butler Yeats. Public Domain.  (buy now)

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.


It’s the birthday of journalist Randy Shilts, (books by this author) born in Davenport, Iowa (1951). He was one of the first mainstream journalists to cover the gay community and the early spread of AIDS. Randy Shilts said, “I view my role in life as writing stories that wouldn’t get written unless I [write] them.”


It’s the birthday of essayist, short-story writer, and novelist Elizabeth Tallent, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1954). Her first novel, Museum Pieces (1985), takes place largely in the basement of an archeologist’s museum in New Mexico.


It’s the birthday of physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, born in Canton, South Dakota (1901). He was a curious child — at age two, he tried to figure out how matches worked and ended up lighting his clothes on fire. His best friend in Canton was a boy named Merle Tuve, who would go on become a famous geophysicist. The boys built gliders together and constructed a crude radio transmitting station.

Lawrence worked his way through college — he received an undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Yale. He accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1930 he became the youngest full professor there. Lawrence put in 70-hour weeks at the Berkeley Radiation Lab, and he expected everyone else to do the same. The Lab was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It was there that he invented a machine that he called a “proton merry-go-round,” better known as the cyclotron. Lawrence’s first version of the cyclotron was very makeshift — it involved a kitchen chair, clothes racks, and a pie pan — but eventually he produced a more sophisticated device. The cyclotron was a machine that could accelerate particles and then hurl them at atoms to smash the atoms open. This allowed scientists to discover radioactive isotopes of elements and sometimes new elements. In 1940, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for his invention.


It’s the birthday of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1896). As a girl, she loved to write, and she published stories and essays in the children’s section of newspapers. As a young wife, she moved to Rochester, New York, where she wrote for a society magazine. She suggested to the editor of the Rochester Times-Union that she write a daily column in verse called “Songs of a Housewife.” The editor was unconvinced, but he finally agreed to let her try. Her column was extremely popular, syndicated in 50 newspapers. She wrote poems about cooking, being a mother, gardening, neighbors, housework, and the weather. Her first column was called “The Smell of Country Sausage,” and it began: “I let the spiced aromas / Call up the kitchen stair / Before I have my table set / The family all is there.” She wrote 495 columns of “Songs of a Housewife.”

Then she and her husband purchased an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. She spent the rest of her life there, even after her marriage ended because her husband did not like rural life. A few years after her divorce, she published her best-known book, The Yearling (1938). It’s the story of Jody Baxter, a lonely Florida farm boy, and Flag, his adopted orphaned fawn. Jody grows up along with Flag, but when Flag eats the family’s corn crop, his parents tell Jody that he has to shoot the deer. Although The Yearling is now marketed as a children’s or young adult novel, at the time of its publication it appealed to a general audience. It was the best-selling novel of the year 1938, and Rawlings’ editor was Maxwell Perkins, who was most famous as the editor for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize, and like several of Rawlings’ other novels, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

In her memoir Cross Creek, she wrote: “We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things. We must need flowering and fruiting trees, for all of us have citrus groves of one size or another. We must need a certain blandness of season, with a longer and more beneficent heat than many require, for there is never too much sun for us, and through the long summers we do not complain. We need the song of birds, and there is none finer than the red-bird. We need the sound of rain coming across the hamaca, and the sound of wind in trees — and there is no more sensitive Aeolian harp than the palm. The pine is good, for the needles brushing one another have a great softness, and we have the wind in the pines, too. We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved. We are not even offended when others do not share our delight. Tom Glisson and I often laugh together at the people who consider the Creek dull, or, in the precise sense, outlandish.”


It’s the birthday of poet Sara Teasdale (books by this author), born in St. Louis (1884). She grew up in a wealthy family. Her mother was 40 when Sara came along, and her parents had not planned to have another child. They doted on their daughter, and were always anxious about her — if she had even a mild cold she was put in bed for days. So Sara grew up thinking of herself as sickly, even an invalid, when in reality she was probably no sicker than the average child. She didn’t go to school until the age of nine because her parents thought she was too delicate. Her three brothers and sisters were all in their teens when she was born, and she wasn’t allowed outside to play with other children. She was often lonely, and she made up stories and poems to amuse herself.

She attended a series of girls’ schools, and eventually began to submit poems for publication. Her parents paid for the publication of her first book, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907).She received enough positive feedback to continue writing, and she eventually became a well-loved poet. Her collection Rivers to the Sea (1915) was a best-seller, and Love Songs (1917) won several major awards, including the award that would become known as the Pulitzer Prize.


Britain’s “Great Train Robbery” was carried out on this date in 1963. In the pre-dawn hours, a Royal Mail train bound from Glasgow to London was stopped by an unexpected red signal on the line. When the conductor stopped the train to investigate, 15 men in ski masks, armed with iron bars, boarded the train and relieved it of 124 sacks of bank notes worth well over £2 million.

The robbers made a getaway to their farmhouse lair about 30 miles away, where they counted and divided the money and even played Monopoly with it. They cleaned the place before they left, but didn’t do a very thorough job, and police were able to recover the fingerprints of all of the robbers. Twelve of the 15 men were captured and tried within six months, but shortly after the trial, two of them — Ronnie Biggs and Charlie Wilson — escaped prison and fled to Paris, where they had plastic surgery to change their appearance. The other three, including mastermind Bruce Reynolds, also evaded police for several years, but eventually all of the robbers were captured.


On this date in 2000, the submarine H.L. Hunley was raised from the bottom of Charleston Harbor, where it had lain since February of 1864. The Hunley was about 40 feet long and four feet in diameter. It was made of cast and wrought iron, and it was propelled through the water by the means of a hand-cranked propeller. The sub was designed for a crew of eight: seven men to turn the propeller crank and one to steer. It had two small, watertight hatches and two ballast tanks, which could be filled with water or pumped dry, depending on whether the sub needed to dive or surface. As soon as it was successfully tested, the Confederate Army seized it for the war effort.

The sub — also called a “torpedo fish” — set out on its first and last mission of the Civil War in February 1864. The Union warship Housatonic was guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor when the Hunley embedded a barbed torpedo in the Union ship’s hull. The bomb detonated as the sub made its retreat, sinking the warship and making the Hunley the world’s first successful combat submarine. The crew gave the “mission accomplished” signal to Confederate forces on the shore, and began to make their way back to port. But the Hunley never arrived.

Author Clive Cussler spearheaded the 15-year effort to find and recover the Hunley. A diver finally found the wreck in 1995, about 100 yards from the wreck of the Housatonic. The submarine was buried in silt, which had kept it preserved and hidden for more than a hundred years. 


On this date in 1929, the Graf Zeppelin airship took off from Lakehurst, New Jersey, on a round-the-world flight. It was the first such flight by a passenger aircraft. The trip was partially funded by media mogul William Randolph Hearst; he covered half the cost in exchange for exclusive media rights in the United States and Britain. There were 61 passengers and crew on the historic flight: 60 men and one woman. Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, a journalist, covered the flight for Hearst. She was also the first woman to fly around the world. The trip from Lakehurst to Lakehurst took just over 21 days, including stops.

Graf Zeppelin had a remarkable nine-year career. Before its round-the-world trip, it was also the first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic Ocean. It flew more than a million miles, safely carried 34,000 passengers, flew a scientific mission over the North Pole, and routinely flew passengers back and forth across the Atlantic. But the age of the giant dirigibles came to an end when Graf Zeppelin’s sister ship, the Hindenburg, went up in flames in 1937.

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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

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“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

The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 2018

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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

It’s the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, who opined, “writers are always selling someone out.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

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.

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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.

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