The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018


Piano
by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

“Piano” by D. H. Lawrence. Public domain.


It was on this day in 1791 that the first edition of the British newspaper The Observer was published. It’s the oldest Sunday paper in the world.

The publisher, a man named W.S. Bourne, thought the newspaper would make him rich. But instead it sent him spiraling into more than a thousand pounds of debt, and after just a few years, he tried to sell off the paper. First, he tried to convince some anti-government organizations to buy the newspaper. But they didn’t want it, so instead he turned around and tried to sell it to the British government. But they didn’t want to buy it either. However, the British government — then under the reign of King George III, who’d recently lost the Revolutionary War and 13 colonies in America — did decide to subsidize the newspaper, in exchange for having a say in what sorts of news stories went into it.

The paper spent a lot of the 1800s filled with government propaganda and sensational gossip, but with new editors gradually turned toward serious. In the mid-20th century, news stories replaced advertisements on the front page, and the paper became owned by a trust. It employed a number of famous writers as journalists, including George Orwell, Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Koestler, and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

In 1993, it was acquired by The Guardian, a daily newspaper. In 2005, it became the first newspaper to offer podcasts.


It was on this date in 1674 that Father Jacques Marquette built a log cabin on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the mouth of the Chicago River. The French Jesuit had explored the area the year before, with explorer Louis Jolliet, and he returned with the intent of establishing a mission there. His journey had been going fairly smoothly, and hunting was good, but a snowstorm dumped a foot of snow overnight, and Marquette also suffered a recurrence of the dysentery that had plagued him on his previous journey. He and his companions built a crude cabin, intending to pass the winter there. It was an advantageous location; it was possible to move between the Great Lakes and the Chicago River (which eventually connected with the Illinois River, and thence to the Mississippi) by way of a short overland portage. For this reason, the Jesuits chose the site of Marquette’s little cabin to build the Mission of the Guardian Angel in 1696. The mission was largely abandoned in 1720 after repeated Native American raids, but in the 1780s, a man of African descent named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a farm there. He was the first permanent resident of Chicago.

From Marquette’s journal entry of December 4:
“We started well to reach Portage River, which was frozen half a foot thick. There was more snow there than anywhere else, and also more tracks of animals and turkeys. The navigation of the lake from one portage to the other is quite is fine, there being no traverse to make, and landing being quite feasible all along, providing you do not obstinately persist in traveling in the breakers and high winds. The land along the shore is good for nothing, except on the prairies. You meet eight or ten pretty fine rivers. Deer hunting is pretty good as you get away from the Pottawatomies.”


On this date in 1872the ghost ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned and abandoned, in the Atlantic. She was an American brigantine merchant ship, and she’d been at sea for about a month. When she was found, she was fully stocked with six months’ worth of food and supplies, she was completely seaworthy, and the weather was calm. She was flying no distress signal, and there were no signs of violence or mutiny, but all of her passengers and crew had vanished without a trace. The ship’s lifeboat was gone, which seemed to indicate that they had abandoned ship, but their personal possessions and valuables were untouched, so they must have left in a hurry. Also missing were the ship’s papers (with the exception of the logbook), her navigation equipment, and two pumps.

There are several theories about why the ship was abandoned. They run the gamut of plausibility and include sea monsters, alien abduction, tsunami, piracy, and mutiny. The most plausible scenario involves the Mary Celeste‘s cargo. She was carrying 1,700 barrels of raw alcohol, intended for sale in Italy. When she was eventually brought to port, it was discovered that nine of the barrels were empty. Many experts believe that the barrels leaked, causing a build-up of alcohol fumes that would have been easily ignited. Because alcohol burns at such a low temperature, even a large explosion could have left the ship and even the surrounding barrels undamaged; such an explosion would have spooked the captain and crew into abandoning ship. The lifeboat passengers probably drowned in bad weather, or died of starvation and thirst.


Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). The year before he was born, his mother had given birth to a girl who died after a week, and she wanted her son to fill that place. Rainer’s given name was René, and his mother dressed him in dresses, braided his hair, and treated him like a girl. Later, he wrote, “I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll.”

He financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. It was during the winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death. Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he’d started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

Rilke wrote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue […] Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”


Today is the birthday of the British essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle (books by this author), born in Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). Carlyle moved to London with his wife in 1834, and began work on an ambitious project about the French Revolution. He spent months of hard work on the book, living in poverty and devoting every resource to the project, but when he lent the manuscript to philosopher John Stuart Mill, Mill’s maid accidentally threw it in the fire. Even though he wasn’t normally a cheerful person, Carlyle refused to let the loss get him down, and he began rewriting it immediately. The French Revolution (1837) became one of his most respected works, and would later serve as Dickens’ primary reference when he was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859).


It was on this date in 1867 that Oliver Hudson Kelley founded the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as The Grange. It’s the oldest national agricultural advocacy organization. Kelley was born in Boston in 1826, and moved to Itasca, Minnesota, to become a farmer when he was 23. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson sent him to the Southern states to report back on the condition of the farms there. It was during this trip that Kelley began to think about a fraternal organization, similar to the Freemasons, which would work to improve conditions for farmers and bring the North and South back together in a common cause. So he formed the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry for this purpose, and his organization was unusual for the time: it encouraged women and teenagers to participate. In fact, the charter required that four of the elected positions must be held by women. The Grange represented the interests of farmers in disputes with the railroads, it established free rural mail delivery, and helped farmers improve their lives through research-based education. It also championed other, non-agricultural causes like temperance and women’s suffrage.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

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.

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Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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