The Writer’s Almanac for January 13, 2019


The Blue Blanket
by Sue Ellen Thompson

Toward the end, my father argued
with my mother over everything: He wanted
her to eat again. He wanted her to take

her medicine. He wanted her
to live. He argued with her in their bed
at naptime. He was cold, he said,

tugging at the blanket tangled
in my mother’s wasted limbs. From the hall
outside their room I listened

as love, caught and fettered, howled
at its captors, gnawing at its own flesh
in its frenzy to escape. Then I entered

without knocking, freed the blanket
trapped between my mother’s knees and shook
it out once, high above

their bodies’ cursive. It floated
for a moment, blue as the Italian sky
into which my father flew his bombs

in 1943, blue as the hat I’d bought her
for the winter she would never live
to see. My father’s agitation eased,

my mother smiled up at me, her face
lucent with gratitude, as the blanket
sifted down on them like earth.

“The Blue Blanket” by Sue Ellen Thompson. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the novelist Edmund White, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1940). He realized he was gay when he was 12 years old, but he kept trying to blame it on things, like his shyness or the fact that his mother was overprotective. He came out to his father, and his father didn’t believe him until he hired a private investigator to follow him around.

He got a job working for Time Life Books, and he wrote fiction on the side. He wrote five novels about contemporary gay life, but he couldn’t get any of them published. So finally he wrote Forgetting Elena (1973), about a man who wakes up after a party and can’t remember who he is. Writer Vladimir Nabokov called it the best new novel he’d read in years.

But he wanted to write about his own experiences, and he set out to become the foremost gay novelist in America. His third novel, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), was the first gay coming-of-age novel in America, and it became a best-seller in the United States and England. He has gone on to write a series of novels, chronicling the history of gay society in his lifetime, including The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000.)


It’s the birthday of the author who created Paddington Bear and wrote several children’s books about the endearing ursine, Michael Bond, (books by this author) born in Newbury, England (1926).

He was out doing some last-minute Christmas shopping for his wife in 1957 when he came across a small toy bear sitting on a shelf. It was the only one in the display that had not been sold, and Bond thought the bear looked “very sorry for himself.” He bought the bear and then named him “Paddington” because he and his wife lived near the Paddington underground station in London.

The bear is from Peru and had been sent to England — along with a jar of marmalade — by his Aunt Lucy. He wears a label that says, “Please look after this bear.” Throughout a series of children’s books, Paddington Bear gets into troublesome situations, but always emerges safely and everything turns out fine.

Michael Bond said: “One of the nice things about writing for children is their total acceptance of the fantastic. Give a child a stick and a patch of wet sand and it will draw the outline of a boat and accept it as such. I did learn though, that to make fantasy work you have to believe in it yourself. If an author doesn’t believe in his inventions and his characters nobody else will. Paddington to me is, and always has been, very much alive.”


It’s the birthday of Lorrie Moore (1957) (books by this author), born Marie Lorena Moore in Glens Falls, New York. She said of her childhood: “There was acting, and dressing up. We’d play music, and write crappy songs. We’d draw and paint, and fancy ourselves as artistic. It was part of being a girl in the ’60s that you were creative.” She won a short-story prize from Seventeen magazine when she was 19 years old, which prompted her to send them everything she’d ever written. She said, “They couldn’t get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn’t want anything more from me.” It was only after she told her parents about her publication that she found out they had both wanted to be writers themselves. Her father went up into the attic and brought down stories that he’d once submitted to The New Yorker, and her mother admitted that she’d given up journalism for nursing.

She published her first book, a collection of stories that she’d written in graduate school at Cornell, when she was 28. That book was Self-Help (1985), a book Moore later said has “too many birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life.” But the book was received well, and she was compared to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. She published two novels after Self-HelpAnagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994); as well as some short story collections, including Birds of America (1998).

She still writes essays and criticism; a collection of such work was published last year under the title See What Can Be Done.


Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger Jr. (books by this author) born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). He was the oldest of five kids, and he was nearsighted and asthmatic. He was accepted to Harvard when he was 16, and he said, “No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls.” He studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was named Class Poet, and wrote essays, poetry, and short sketches. After graduation, he didn’t enjoy much publishing success, so he made his living by taking a series of temporary teaching jobs.

He moved to New York City, and began working with homeless and delinquent boys, establishing boarding houses and securing homes and public assistance for them. It was during this time that he started writing dime novels for boys. It was his book Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (1868) that finally made him a literary success. Inspired by the street boys he worked with, he had found a formula that he would return to again and again: a young boy, living in poverty, manages to find success and happiness by working hard and never giving up. His books had a powerful influence on America’s self-concept as a land of rags-to-riches success stories. If you worked hard, and lived virtuously, and had a combination of “pluck and luck,” as Alger said, you could go from the gutter to the mansion.

His popularity waned near the end of the century, as boys’ tastes changed. He tried to keep up by making his books more violent, but his income dried up, and he died in near-poverty in 1899. At his request, his sister Augusta burned all of his personal correspondence. Historians have only gradually been able to reconstruct the story of his life.

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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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