The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018


Snow-Bound [excerpt]
by John Greenleaf Whittier

All day the gusty north-wind bore
The loosening drift its breath before;
Low circling round its southern zone,
The sun through dazzling snow-mist shone.
No church-bell lent its Christian tone
To the savage air, no social smoke
Curled over woods of snow-hung oak.
A solitude made more intense
By dreary voiced elements,
The shrieking of the mindless wind,
The moaning tree-boughs swaying blind,
And on the glass the unmeaning beat
Of ghostly finger-tips of sleet.
Beyond the circle of our hearth
No welcome sound of toil or mirth
Unbound the spell, and testified
Of human life and thought outside.
We minded that the sharpest ear
The buried brooklet could not hear,
The music of whose liquid lip
Had been to us companionship,
And, in our lonely life, had grown
To have an almost human tone.

“Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Public domain. 


It’s the birthday of Roman poet Horace (books by this author), born in Apulia, Italy (65 B.C.E.). He is most famous for his Odes, which take up a diverse set of topics, including springtime, Virgil, a friend’s farm, Cleopatra’s defeat, old age, and the Roman Empire.

Various of Horace’s Odes have been translated by Ben Jonson, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Lowell, and even John Quincy Adams.

One of the most famous phrases popularized by Horace is carpe diem, sometimes translated as “seize the day.” Carpe diem comes from Horace’s Ode I-XI, the 11 ode in his first book.

Heather McHugh translated one ode:
“Get wise. Get wine, and one good filter for it.
Cut that high hope down to size, and pour it
into something fit for men. Think less
of more tomorrows, more of this

one second, endlessly unique: it’s
jealous, even as we speak, and it’s
about to split again …”


It’s the birthday of travel writer Bill Bryson (books by this author), born in Des Moines, Iowa (1951). He writes so many travel books that he’s always away from home researching, so he promised his wife he would write a book from home. He said, “So, I decided I’d do a book about the home.” It was published last year as At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010).

In it, he wrote: “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things. Dressing, I wondered why all my suit jackets have a row of pointless buttons on every sleeve. I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon (books by this author), born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). She grew up in a Catholic household. She wanted to be a writer from a young age, but for a while she also wanted to be a nun, and figured that she could write poetry on the side. She changed her mind about being a nun, but she never gave up on the writer idea. She went to college at Barnard, got a master’s in writing, and then went to work on a Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf. She was almost finished with it but she felt like it was compromising her fiction writing. And eventually, it was actually Virginia Woolf who inspired Gordon to quit her dissertation. She said she would take notes on Woolf’s writing, and that “the rhythms of those incredible sentences — the repetitions, the caesuras, the potent colons, semicolons. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Since then she has published many novels as well as short stories, memoirs, and essays, including Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Temporary Shelter (1987), Pearl (2005), The Love of My Youth (2011), and most recently, There Your Heart Lies (2017) about about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War.


Today is the birthday of the humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (books by this author), born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He’s best remembered today for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1944), the tale of a henpecked husband who fantasizes about a life of daring adventure. As a young man, Thurber’s own fantasy had been a little more tame: he dreamed of working as a staff writer for a new magazine called The New Yorker. He began submitting pieces to the magazine in 1926, when it had only been in print for about a year. He said, “My pieces came back so fast I began to think The New Yorker must have a rejection machine.” He persisted, and the first story that was accepted was so impressive that editor Harold Ross offered him a job.

But the story must have impressed Ross a little too much, because instead of getting the staff writer position he longed for, Thurber found himself higher up the ladder as an administrative editor. Unhappy, he tried to get himself demoted by making mistakes on purpose, but it didn’t work. He gave up and just kept submitting pieces to the magazine. When Ross found out how badly he wanted to write, he gave him the position and put him in an office with E.B. White. The two men became good friends, and collaborated on a self-help parody called Is Sex Necessary? (1929), which featured Thurber’s cartoons.

James Thurber said: “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”


It’s the birthday of poet and short-story author Delmore Schwartz (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1913). He studied philosophy, and wanted to become a poet, and one summer while he was in college, he locked himself in his apartment for a month and wrote a short story. It was called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and it was published as the lead piece in The Partisan Review. In the story, which is based on Schwartz’s life, the main character watches his parents’ courtship unfold on a movie screen. When his father proposes, the author begs them to reconsider, to never marry and have children. Schwartz also gave the title to his first collection of poetry and short stories, which he published in 1938 to great acclaim from literary luminaries like Pound, Eliot, and Nabokov.

Schwartz was one of the most promising writers of his generation, but he fell into the abyss of alcohol abuse and mental illness. He began spending his days drinking at the White Horse Tavern in New York and collecting little bits of quotations in a journal. He died of a heart attack in 1966, and no one claimed his body for three days.

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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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March 28, 2019

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Owatonna, MN

Owatonna, MN

March 28, 2019

Garrison Keillor heads to Steele County for a solo performance to benefit the Historical Society. 7:30 p.m.

Radio

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So that’s over, and what’s next?

Finally it’s coming to an end, two years of speculation, more than what’s been written about the future of American higher education, the American novel, and the planet Earth combined, thanks to that long angular face with the sharp Puritan nose and the stone jaw, a man famous for his silence, and why is the name pronounced MULL-er and not MYOO-ler like all the Muellers I know — what’s going on here? Why the secrecy?

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I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

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