The Writer’s Almanac for January 10, 2019


Her Husband Away on a Business Trip, She Takes the Old Pontiac In for Repairs
by Jo McDougall

The young service manager
comes round to explain,
as if someone were dying,

what will have to be done. “It’s more,”
he says, “than we thought.”
I want to tell him it’s all right,

I’ve heard worse;
we’re all orphans here.
Live long enough,

you might as well be a spider
in a corner of the basement,
year in, year out,

marvelously disguised.
But I like this young man
trying to help me understand

that the car is on its last breath.
“Another hour or so, Ma’am,”
he says. ”I’m sorry for the wait.”

It’s all right; I’ll be home soon,
perhaps to find you unpacking,
the cat murmuring to himself

like a contented chicken, the radio
waffling through its noise, the replenished Pontiac
exhaling slowly in the drive.

“Her Husband Away on a Business Trip, She Takes the Old Pontiac In for Repairs” by Jo McDougall, winner of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award in Literature from the Porter Prize Fund of Arkansas and Poet Laureate of Arkansas. From In the Home of the Famous Dead, published by U. of Arkansas Press. © 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of Stephen E. Ambrose, (books by this author) born in Lovington, Illinois (1936), who wrote several best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether LewisThomas Jeffersonand the Opening of the American West (1996).

He was a longtime professor, and many of the stories he wrote in his popular history books were ones he’d told over and over to his college students, trying hard to entertain them. He said, “There is nothing like standing before 50 students at 8:00 a.m. to start talking about an event that occurred 100 years ago, because the look on their faces is a challenge — ‘Let’s see you keep me awake.’ You learn what works and what doesn’t in a hurry.”


It was on this day in 1776 that a 77-page pamphlet called “Common Sense” was published anonymously, making the case that the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. It was written by Thomas Paine. (books by this author) The pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies, more copies than any other publication had ever sold at that time in America.

John Adams would always be somewhat jealous of the attention “Common Sense” and its author received, but even he had to admit that it was “Common Sense,” more than anything else, that had persuaded most ordinary Americans to support independence.


It’s the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1887). He was still trying to figure out what to do for a living when he inherited enough money to support himself writing poetry, so he moved to the coast of California and built himself an observation tower so that he could observe the natural world and write about it.

He was living in his tower, without electricity or plumbing, publishing his books of poetry at his own expense, when an editor chose one of his poems for an anthology of California verse. Jeffers sent the editor his new collection Tamar and Other Poems (1924) as a thank-you gift, and the editor liked it so much that he sent it around to various magazines, where it got great reviews. Jeffers sent all the copies of the book he had to New York, and they immediately sold out.

Within a year, Jeffers was hailed as a genius, compared to Sophocles and Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Real estate agents started using his name to sell land in Carmel, California, where he lived. But after his initial success, he began to write long narrative poems that no one could categorize. By the 1940s, Jeffers had sunk back into obscurity. He’s been reassessed in the last three decades as possibly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. A new collection of his work, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, came out in 2001.


It was on this day in 1901 that the first oil gusher in the United States erupted at Spindletop, just outside Beaumont, Texas. It was considered the beginning of the oil age or petroleum age.

In 1901, all of America’s oil came from the East, mostly from Pennsylvania, and the experts were sure that Pennsylvania was the future of the nation’s oil. The president of Standard Oil, John Archbold, was amused when someone told him in 1885 that they had discovered oil in Oklahoma — he said, “I’ll drink every gallon of oil produced west of the Mississippi!” Ten years later, Texas had started producing respectable amounts of oil, and some oil tycoons sent in people to drill. But the results were small compared to Pennsylvania, and they quickly gave up and left. At this point, Standard Oil controlled more than 80 percent of the oil in the country.

Not everyone was surprised that there was oil in Spindletop, which most people from Beaumont called the Big Hill. Native Americans had been using it medicinally for centuries. Spanish explorers used it to waterproof their boots. And one man who lived near Spindletop was convinced that there was enough oil there to shift the focus from Pennsylvania to Texas, and even to replace coal as the primary energy source. His name was Patillo Higgins, and most people thought he was crazy. He was a determined, wiry man who had lost one arm in a gunfight. He finally convinced some local entrepreneurs to invest by promising them millions, but when he tried to drill, he came up totally dry. After that, townspeople sarcastically called him “the millionaire” and stopped taking him seriously. So Higgins ran an ad in a trade journal in New York City, promising the same thing. He only got one response, but that was all he needed. The Croatian-born oil explorer Anthony Lucas signed on, and they started drilling in late 1900. Finally, on this day in 1901, they hit a depth of about 1,200 feet, and natural gas started shooting out of the ground, followed by crude oil.

The oil gusher reached a height of 200 feet straight up in the air, and produced about 4.2 million gallons of oil every day for nine days. Over the course of those nine days, about 50,000 people observed the gusher. Within the year, the town of Beaumont went from 8,000 people to 60,000. That first Spindletop well produced as much oil as 37,000 Eastern wells combined, and by the end of 1910 there were more than 100 wells on Spindletop. Before 1901, oil and petroleum had been mostly for lamps — suddenly, it was the cheapest fuel, just three cents a barrel.


It was on this day in 49 B.C. that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and launched a civil war.

At the time of Caesar’s birth, in 100 B.C., the Roman Republic was falling into political chaos. It had only nominal control of its provinces, which were really under the command of their powerful governors. A few wealthy individuals were becoming increasingly corrupt, and they found it easier to settle political issues with the military than to try and honor Roman law. Caesar was born into a wealthy and well-known family, but one without much political clout. Caesar became the head of his family at the age of 16 after his father died, and he worked his way up quickly through various official positions and appointments — he was an assistant to the consul, a chief priest, a governor of Spain, and then consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He formed the “first triumvirate” with Pompey and Crassus — Pompey was a military hero who was frustrated with the politics of the Republic, and Crassus was one of the richest people in the Republic, and is still considered one of the wealthiest people who has ever lived. Even though Pompey and Crassus hated each other, Caesar convinced them that it was worth getting over their differences, because the power and wealth that the three men had together made them hugely influential. The Triumvirate was secured when Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia.

Caesar was appointed governor of Gaul — what is now France and Belgium, but at that point was part of the Roman Republic. There, he recruited soldiers and conquered most of Western Europe, all the way to Britain. But back in Rome, his political alliances were falling apart. Crassus was killed in battle, hating Pompey until the end. Pompey turned against Caesar, and after Julia died, Pompey got remarried to the daughter of one of Caesar’s enemies. Pompey had been appointed the temporary leader of the Senate and was turning the Senate against Caesar, declaring him an enemy of state.

In 50 B.C., the Senate announced that Caesar’s term as a governor had ended, and demanded that he disband his army and return to Rome. According to Roman law, if a general was accompanied by a standing army when he entered the official Roman Republic from one of the Roman provinces, he would be considered a traitor. Caesar was afraid that if he obeyed Pompey’s orders and disbanded his army, he would be prosecuted by the Senate for abusing power in the past, and would have no one to defend him.

The Rubicon River formed the border between Gaul and the Roman Republic. According to legend, even when Caesar got to the river with his army, he had still not made up his mind about what he would do. With the famous phrase Alea iacta est, or “the die is cast,” he decided to cross.

Because of Caesar, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has entered popular culture, meaning “past the point of no return.” And it is used in all sorts of contexts. In various articles written last fall, Google was “crossing the Rubicon” for the online shopping industry by making it possible for shoppers to see which local stores carry the products they want, in their store, at that very moment; Subaru was “crossing the Rubicon to sedan-hood” with its switch away from a hatchback for one of its models; Joe Biden said, “I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office.” Rubicon is the name of a recently terminated conspiracy thriller TV show, and Crossing the Rubicon is the title of an album by the Swedish band The Sounds. The Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re Caesar about to cross the Rubicon or Captain Queeg cutting your own tow line.”

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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

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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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Writing

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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It’s coming and will find you in due course

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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Yes, we have now turned the corner

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Read More

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.

Read More

Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

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A few words from a top executive

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