The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018


After We Saw What There Was To See
by Lawrence Raab

After we saw what there was to see
we went off to buy souvenirs, and my father
waited by the car and smoked. He didn’t need
a lot of things to remind him where he’d been.
Why do you want so much stuff?
he might have asked us. “Oh, Ed,” I can hear
my mother saying, as if that took care of it.

After she died I don’t think he felt any reason
to go back through all those postcards, not to mention
the glossy booklets about the Singing Tower
and the Alligator Farm, the painted ashtrays
and lucite paperweights, everything we carried home
and found a place for, then put away
in boxes, then shoved far back in our closets.

He’d always let my mother keep track of the past,
and when she was gone—why should that change?
Why did I want him to need what he’d never needed?
I can see him leaning against our yellow Chrysler
in some parking lot in Florida or Maine.
It’s a beautiful cloudless day. He glances at his watch,
lights another cigarette, looks up at the sky.

“After We Saw What There Was to See” by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Poets, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1911 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people ever to reach the South Pole on the continent of Antarctica, the last continent on earth to be explored by people. People weren’t even sure that there was land under the ice in Antarctica until the 19th century.

Amundsen was in a race with the British explorer Robert F. Scott, and he won the race largely because he was willing to use sled dogs as his primary mode of transportation, whereas Scott believed that traveling by dog sled was undignified. To reach the pole, Amundsen’s team had to travel about 800 miles into Antarctica’s interior in weather that occasionally reached 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, cold enough to freeze the liquid in their compasses. They had to eat some of their dogs as food, got caught in a blizzard, and they all suffered from frostbite. But on this day in 1911, their calculations and their compasses told them that they had reached the geographical South Pole, and they planted their Norwegian flag. Scott’s party reached the South Pole a little more than a month later, traveling by foot, and they froze to death before they ever made it home.


On this date in 1542Mary Stuart ascended the throne of Scotland. She was only six days old when her father, James V, died. King Henry VIII of England, who was her great-uncle, tried to use the familial connection to unite England and Scotland, and drew up a treaty arranging the infant Mary’s eventual marriage to his son Edward. The Scots resisted, and Henry began the six-year “War of Rough Wooing” in an effort to force the Scots to comply. The child’s mother, Mary of Guise, negotiated a marriage pact with Henry II of France instead.

From the age of five, Mary Stuart grew up in France, in the court of Henry II, away from the political machinations taking place in England and Scotland. She received a good education, not only in courtly pursuits like music, dancing, and horsemanship, but also in Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Greek. Though she became an enduring symbol of Scotland, her upbringing and identity were thoroughly French. When she was 16, she was wed to King Henry’s eldest son, Francis, who was 14 at the time, and sickly. It was a purely political marriage, but she was fond of her young husband, who became king upon his father’s death in 1559. Six months after her marriage, Mary’s Protestant cousin once removed, Elizabeth, acceded to the throne of England, and Mary — a Catholic — was second in line for the crown.

Mary Stuart was widowed at 18, and returned to Scotland to rule in 1561. She found the country of her birth had converted to Protestantism in her absence, and her cousin Elizabeth viewed her with suspicion and hostility, afraid she had designs on the English crown. Her countrymen, too, saw her as a foreigner; her policy of religious tolerance won them over, and it didn’t hurt that she was tall, graceful, and beautiful. Unfortunately, she was also easily besotted, and in 1565 she fell passionately in love with, and hastily married, her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. They had a son, James, but Henry proved to be an ambitious, drunken embarrassment. He was murdered two years later; it’s not clear whether Mary had any foreknowledge of the crime, but she married the chief suspect, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, after he abducted her. Bothwell was soon exiled by the Scottish nobles, and Mary was deposed in favor of her one-year-old son.

In 1568, Mary fled to England and sought the help of her much more politically savvy cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Rather than helping her regain the throne of Scotland, as Mary had hoped, Elizabeth had her imprisoned, using Darnley’s death as a pretense. In 1587, word reached Elizabeth of a Catholic plot on her life, a plot that implicated Mary; she reached the conclusion that Mary was too great a threat as long as she remained alive. Although Mary argued that she was a sovereign ruler of Scotland and not an English subject, Elizabeth ordered her trial, and later, her execution for treason. Mary’s son James made no protest; eventually he succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne, becoming King James I of England.

Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587, and it took two — possibly three — strokes of the executioner’s axe to behead her. A little dog, which she had kept as a pet during her imprisonment, had snuck along to the gallows with her under her skirts, and refused to be parted from her after her death, until Mary’s ladies in waiting carried it away to wash the blood from its fur. When the executioner held up the severed head with a cry of “God save the queen!” the luxuriant auburn hair came off in his hand. It was a wig, and Mary’s close-cropped head, gone gray during her time in prison, tumbled to the ground.


Today is the birthday of Shirley Jackson (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1916). Her best-known story is “The Lottery,” about an idyllic town and its yearly ritual in which townspeople select one of their number and stone him or her to death to ensure a bountiful harvest. The story appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948, and many readers were horrified. They canceled their subscriptions and sent in angry letters, which the magazine forwarded to Jackson. She was most horrified by letters from people who wanted to know where they could go to witness a lottery like the one she’d described. Even her mother scolded her and told her to write something to cheer people up.

She wrote novels too. Her best known is The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a quintessential haunted house tale that was recently turned into a popular Netflix series, but she also wrote light, humorous tales of her family life in books like Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She raised four children and only wrote after her household work was done. She said: “I can’t persuade myself that writing is honest work. It’s great fun and I love it. For one thing, it’s the only way I can get to sit down.”


It’s the birthday of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, born at Knutstrup, his family’s ancestral castle, in Scania. (1546). When he was 12, he began studying law at the University of Copenhagen, but eventually he became interested in astronomy after a solar eclipse in 1560. In 1572, he witnessed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. He thought he was seeing the birth of a new star, although it was actually the death of one. With the publication of his book De nova stella (1573), he went from being a dabbler to a respected astronomer. He conducted rigorous observations of the heavens, night after night, and he was the last major astronomer to do so without the use of a telescope. Eventually, he took on an assistant by the name of Johannes Kepler, who eventually became the guardian of all of Brahe’s closely guarded measurements.

In 1601, Brahe attended a formal banquet where the drink flowed freely. Even though his bladder was full, he refused to leave the table to relieve himself, because it would have been a breach of etiquette. He developed a painful urinary infection and died 11 days later. It was long thought that the infection caused acute kidney failure, but recent analysis of his hair samples showed an extremely high concentration of mercury in Brahe’s body. Scientists believe he probably consumed a large quantity of the metal a day before he died — possibly as part of some kind of remedy for his infection.

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Here in Minnesota, we have two more big snowstorms to endure, the DST storm and then the State High School Basketball Tournament blizzard at the end of the month, and then we’re in the clear. I see younger people out walking even now, but they have headphones on and I worry that they won’t hear the car approaching and will step boldly into the crosswalk while listening to a wealthy pop star screaming that nobody understands her, which would be a wretched way to die, run over by a geezer confused by the stoplight while you are tuned in to the complaints of a multi-multi-millionaire.

It’s been a hard winter, though it was late arriving, and in March I look around my shrinking circle of friends for signs of marital discord. Being cooped up in close quarters can lead to questions — how was I attracted to this (dolt/shrew) and how should I proceed to shed myself of (him/her)? You sit over your organic artisanal oatmeal and your spouse asks if you were aware that the world’s population is 7.6 billion, which you weren’t, and it seems that he or she has read a book about demography and would like to give you the highlights. The combination of demography and oatmeal leads you down into a dark psychological cellar, but how can you say “Shut up” to your mate and not offend her/him? So you stifle yourself and resentment builds and that night, while drying dishes, you drop a precious plate that belonged to your spouse’s grandmother and the spouse stalks out of the room and goes online and Googles “divorce.”

I see no signs of this among the people I know and I’m glad. Divorce is a disaster, even when it is necessary. It is dreadful for children, don’t kid yourself. I am thinking of starting a movement against it, #UsTwo. I may write a book in which I say that forgiveness is the crucial thing in marriage, not justice, not commonality, and that a couple must — not should, but must — go through the ceremonies of affection, the morning embrace, the saying of “I love you” at least fifteen times daily, the touching of the loved one’s shoulders and arm and back whenever within reach, the wholehearted acceptance of the spouse’s irrational whims and impulses. Silence is the enemy. Chitchat is your friend. Small talk is at the center of every long-lived love. Avoid big ideas. Never discuss demography. Now and then put away the oatmeal and have steak and eggs.

My wife is cheerful and I am dour and when people see us on the street, they think, “How good of that young woman to get her uncle out of the Home and into the fresh air.” But we get along very well thanks to our observance of the formalities. The touch on the shoulder, the sudden turning to the other and saying, “I’m in love with you,” and meaning it. If she looks at me over the oatmeal tomorrow and says that Bernie Sanders has won her heart, it honestly won’t matter to me one bit. If she is lured into some exotic cult that wears pointy hats and worships cats and never walks in threes, I’m OK. We are solid.

The world is not as it once was and we know that. The homegrown tomato has almost disappeared from America in favor of species bred for long shelf life so they can be trucked up from Ecuador in the winter, tomatoes that bounce if you drop them because they are bred with genes of tennis balls, and so you no longer bite into a tomato and feel euphoria, but if you are loved and if spring comes soon, you’re going to be OK. It’s just ahead. We’ll sit outdoors and drink coffee and the sun will shine on us, I promise.

I'm only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Twelve hats are in, more on the way, some serious, most delusional. Hotel business in Iowa and New Hampshire will be steady all year and then on Super Tuesday, March 3, the truth will dawn. The stumblers and pretenders, the gasbags and long-shot gamblers, will quietly disappear, and two or three contenders will head into the spring and summer.

It is presumed they’ll be running against the weak incumbent but after the Cohen hearing, one doubts that. D.T. is accepted by everyone over the age of ten, even those who love him, as a dishonest sleazeball with ADD issues, and with Democrats conducting hearings from now till the election, he is going to be in the news more or less nonstop as a national embarrassment. Republicans at last week’s hearing could only heckle Cohen; none of them stood up for his boss and said what a great American he is. His best hope is that Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee: that’s a race D.T. can win in a walk. America doesn’t want an angry president; wacko is bad enough.

If Joe Biden enters the lists and emerges next March as the front-runner, D.T. will issue a brief statement that, having made the country great again and now wishing to spend quality time with his family, he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his short game. Maybe Sean Hannity will accept the nomination in his place. America is not ready for a man who parts his hair that high on his head. Biden will win and restore normalcy.

The remarkable thing about the Cohen hearing was how unremarkable it was, the whole wretched epic of corruption and dishonesty and egomania. And the remarkable thing about D.T. is how little real damage the grifter has accomplished. We all imagined that the Presidency was a superhuman responsibility, the light burning late in the Oval Office, the great man bearing the world on his shoulders, and now it turns out that a clown with a hair fetish who doesn’t know schist from Shinola can occupy the chair and life goes on much as before. Electricity is flowing, there is milk and butter in the stores. If Justice Ginsburg resigns soon, we will have a Supreme Court straight out of 1857. But your Wi-Fi will still work.

There is a general awareness that we cannot continue trashing the planet as we’ve done, but the crisis grows slowly and AOC can’t promote it to emergency simply by saying so. We don’t want to ride the bus and turn off lawn sprinklers until God sends a prophet in a pillar of fire to scare us, not just a bunch of Ph.Ds. So the Green New Deal, though insightful, is not a winner.

The Mueller report will not usher D.T. out of office. He is a crook and a liar but we’ve known that for two years. Mueller will only add details. The Republican Party is not going to usher him out; he owns them.

What will win for Democrats is a candidate who is presidential. Even people who expect to vote for D.T. are embarrassed by him. Nobody imagines that he represents anything admirable about America. Obama was a good orator. W. was likable. Clinton loved politics. Bush was a war hero. Reagan was genuine. Carter was a man of faith. Ford was a true patriot. Nixon was a master of his craft. Ike was Ike. Each man had biographers who found things to admire. D.T. is as transparent as cellophane, one of the most unloved presidents in our history.

The American electorate wants this man to disappear into the back pages and the Democrats owe it to us to make that happen. This is no time for a great leap forward. It is time for him to go so that journalists can go back to writing nonfiction and Congress can get back into business. Let’s put a woman in charge in 2024. First, let’s have an old white guy with thin hair throw the rascal out.

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