The Writer’s Almanac for August 9, 2018

From “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth. Public domain. (buy now)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it has been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more!
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.


On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon officially resigned from the presidency. At 11:35 a.m., his resignation letter was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald Ford took the oath of office. Then, at 12:05 p.m., exactly half an hour after Kissinger accepted Nixon’s resignation letter, Gerald Ford gave his first speech as president of the United States. He was the only president in U.S. history who was never elected president or vice president.

In his inaugural address on this day 44 years ago, Gerald Ford said: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”


 It’s the birthday of the man the British voted (in 2003) their favorite poet of the past half-century: Philip Larkin, (books by this author) born in Coventry, England, on this day in 1922.

He was a librarian for 30 years and a lifelong stoic. He once said, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Critic Eric Homberger said that Philip Larkin had “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket.” Larkin wrote:

“I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.”

As a child he stammered, grew up in a house that friends or relatives never visited, had terrible eyesight and un-affectionate parents. Still, he had plenty of good friends and he seemed to have a good time with them. He hung out with Kingsley Amis and classmates he knew from his Oxford days, a group called “The Seven.” They got together and listened to jazz, read their poetry to each other, drank lots of beer, and talked about big philosophical and aesthetic matters.

Philip Larkin really liked nature and wildlife, and he was especially fond of toads. He wrote some famous poems about toads, and the lines “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? … “Something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too.”

Philip Larkin said, “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. After all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?”


Today is the birthday of the engineer and architect Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, born in Anet, France, in 1754. He studied art at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture for five years, and in 1776, he left school to volunteer for the colonial army in the American Revolution. He served under General Washington at Valley Forge, and would often sketch Washington and other soldiers. He eventually settled permanently in New York City and began working as an architect and civil engineer.

In 1791, he lobbied George Washington for a job designing the new nation’s capital, which was to be built on the banks of the Potomac River. Thomas Jefferson provided him with the maps of several European cities, and L’Enfant selected the best features of each. He first laid out a plan for the important capital buildings and connected them by broad avenues at diagonals. Over this, he laid a grid of rectangular blocks. This design created lots of triangles, circles, and squares where the streets intersected, and these were perfect places to put statues or small monuments. He also envisioned a long public walk, open to everyone, which he called the “Grand Avenue.” It eventually became the National Mall.

Jefferson wasn’t in favor of L’Enfant’s ambitious plan; he’d envisioned something a little less flashy. But the architect was stubbornly committed to his own design. He refused to listen to the city commissioners who were supposed to be overseeing him, and when one leading citizen built his house where an avenue was supposed to run, L’Enfant had the house torn down. Washington had no choice but to fire him in 1792, writing, “Having the beauty and harmony of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person and thing was obliged to yield to it.”

L’Enfant spent the next several years trying to collect payment for his services. He felt he was owed about $95,000 for the work he’d put in, but in the end, Congress paid him less than $4,000. Many of his plans for the capital were disregarded — a railway station sat in the middle of L’Enfant’s “Grand Avenue,” and cows grazed freely on its lawn. For most of the 1800s, the city was seen as a provincial backwater. There was even talk of moving the capital back to Philadelphia. But in 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of engineers and architects who revisited L’Enfant’s original plans, and finally, nearly a century after his death, most of his vision was realized.


Cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop made her debut on this date in 1930. She appeared in a Max Fleischer short called “Dizzy Dishes,” and she was a real dog. She’d been created as a counterpart to Bimbo, a little hound who was Fleischer Studios’ answer to Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Bimbo needed a girlfriend, so Fleischer drew a sexy French poodle. Eventually, her floppy ears evolved into hoop earrings, and Betty became a human, rather than a canine, flapper.

For her first four years, Betty Boop cartoons were pretty racy. But in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Betty’s skirts got longer, her neckline got higher, and she lost her trademark garter. Her storylines were also toned down and aimed toward a more juvenile audience. The studio received many complaints, and Betty’s popularity began to wane. Her series ended in 1939.


Today is the birthday of science fiction author Daniel Keyes (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. He wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a short story called “Flowers for Algernon,” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced. The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon, a janitor with an IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject. It was a story that had been stewing in Keyes’ mind for several years; his parents had pressured him to go into medicine, even though he wanted to be a writer. As he struggled with the difficult coursework, he wondered if it was possible to become smarter. And he became aware of the problems faced by the mentally disabled when he taught English to a class of special-needs students.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. Keyes later expanded the story into a novel by the same name, and though publishers wanted him to change the ending so that Charlie lived happily ever after, he resisted. The novel kept its original ending: Algernon the mouse dies, and Charlie, who becomes a tormented genius for a while, eventually loses his artificially enhanced intelligence and ends up in a home for disabled adults. The book is written as a series of Charlie’s journal entries and ends with a poorly spelled request for the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave. The novel was published in 1966 and has never been out of print. It’s been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times, including the feature film Charly (1968), for which Cliff Robertson won a Best Actor Oscar.


 

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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.

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December 16, 2018

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December 16, 2018

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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

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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

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One more beautiful wasted day

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

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Standing around, watching people suffer

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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