The Writer’s Almanac for July 11, 2018

“The Wordsworth Effect” by Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission of the author. (buy now)

Is when you return to a place
and it’s not nearly as amazing
as you once thought it was,

or when you remember how you felt
about something (or someone) but you know
you’ll never feel that way again.

It’s when you notice someone has turned
down the volume, and you realize
it was you; when you have the

suspicion that you’ve met the enemy
and you are it, or when you get
your best ideas from your sister’s journal.

Is also-to be fair-the thing that enables
you to walk for miles and miles chanting to
yourself in iambic pentameter

and to travel through Europe with
only a clean shirt, a change of
underwear, a notebook and a pen.

And yes: is when you stretch out
on your couch and summon up ten thousand
daffodils, all dancing in the breeze.


It was on this day in 1859 that Charles Dickens’s (books by this author) novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was published. It begins:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”


It was on this day that Harper Lee’s (books by this author) To Kill a Mockingbird, was published, the story narrated by six-year-old Scout Finch in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It was an immediate best-seller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and an instant American classic. It continues to sell incredibly well, with 30 million copies still in print.

The book’s title appears in a scene in chapter 10, where Scout remembers something her dad, Atticus, has said and asks her neighbor Miss Maudie about it.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”


It’s the birthday of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). Whistler himself later decided he would have preferred to come from St. Petersburg, Russia. He said, “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” He did live in St. Petersburg for a while, when he was nine and his father got a job as a civil engineer for the railroad. He took private art lessons, enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and later spent some time in London with relatives. The family moved back to America after the death of Whistler’s father.

Whistler’s mother wanted him to be a minister, but he enrolled in the West Point Military Academy instead. He didn’t distinguish himself by his academic performance, and he had a rebellious streak, wearing his curly hair longer than was allowed. The superintendent — Robert E. Lee — gave him several chances to reform, but eventually was forced to kick him out. He took a job as a mapmaker, drawing mermaids and sea monsters in the maps’ oceans, and in 1855, with some help from a wealthy friend, he left for Paris to study art. He never returned to the United States, and eventually settled in London.

In 1885, Whistler gave his famous “Ten O’clock Lecture” to general acclaim. One reviewer wrote, “[T]he Prince’s Hall was crowded […] There were lords and ladies, beauties and their attendant ‘beasts,’ painters and poets, all who know about Art, and all who thought that they did […] all seemed delighted with ‘Jimmy.'”

In the hourlong lecture, Whistler talked about his philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” Unlike most Victorians, he didn’t believe art or artists had a responsibility to convey a moral message. His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it’s more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” It’s a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler’s scheduled model didn’t show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead.


Today is the birthday of Elwin Brooks White (books by this author), born in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). He started publishing essays when he was in his mid-20s. Eventually, The New Yorker decided to hire White as a staff writer, and he wrote for the magazine for nearly 60 years. In 1938, he and his wife — the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Katharine Angell — left New York City and moved to a farm on the coast of Maine. There he continued to write essays, and his reflections on farming for Harper’s were collected in the book One Man’s Meat (1942).

For the January 1948 issue of Atlantic Monthly, he contributed an essay called “Death of a Pig,” about his futile attempt to save a dying porker. In it, he wrote, “I discovered … that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles. The pig’s lot and mine were inextricably bound now, as though the rubber tube were the silver cord.” And though he often said there was no connection, his second children’s book — Charlotte’s Web (1952) — is also a story about a pig. But this time, the pig is saved from the slaughter through the efforts of a little girl and a clever spider.

In the summer of 1948, White found himself back in New York City in the middle of a heat wave. So over a couple of sweltering days in a room at the Algonquin Hotel, he wrote Here is New York (1948), a love letter to the city that was once his home. He said, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. […] No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”


Today is the birthday of Jhumpa Lahiri (books by this author), born in London (1967). Her parents were Bengali immigrants from India. When Lahiri was two years old, her father got a job as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and they moved to America. On weekends, the whole family would get together with other Bengali families, sometimes driving for hours to other states for a party. The adults cooked Bengali food and spoke Bengali and reminisced; the kids all watched television together. And even though she’s lived in America from toddlerhood, she struggles with not feeling American. “For me,” she says, “there is sort of a half-way feeling.”

Throughout her childhood, Lahiri wrote stories to entertain herself. She went to college at Barnard, then to graduate school at Boston University. She was on the verge of going to work in retail when Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish her first book for a small advance. That book was The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a collection of nine stories about Bengalis and Bengali-Americans living in suburban New England. The publishers didn’t expect to sell many copies so they only released it in trade paperback. As expected, it didn’t get much notice at first, but one day she got a phone call from a woman from Houghton Mifflin, asking a lot of questions about Lahiri’s background. Lahiri assumed it was for promotional materials. “And then she said, ‘You don’t know why I am calling, do you?'” Lahiri recalled. “And I said, ‘No, why are you calling?’ And she said, ‘You just won the Pulitzer.'” It was the first time a trade paperback had ever won the Pulitzer Prize.

 

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

I read the newspapers, and there was our man in London hobnobbing with the queen at Windsor Castle and exulting in it — “We had a great feeling. I liked her a lot. She is an incredible woman, she is so sharp, she is so beautiful, inside and out.” — which echoed what he’d said about U.K. manufacturing: “They have product that we like. I mean they have a lot of great product. They make phenomenal things, you know, and you have different names — you can say ‘England,’ you can say ‘U.K.,’ you can say ‘United Kingdom’ … the fact is you make great product, you make great things.” And they have a great queen and she and he had a wonderful tea together and the tea was tremendous and so were the scones, inside and out.

That’s how I feel this summer, very happy, though I’m a Democrat and know I should be troubled.

One reason for my cheerfulness is that I’ve stayed indoors except for walking to and from the car. I’ve preferred the indoors since I was a child but was shamed into taking long hikes in the woods because, as devout Christians, we should look upon nature as God’s handiwork, the trees, the birds, the firmament, the whole thing, but now that I’m 75 I just do as I wish. Indoors is where the coffeemaker is and my laptop computer. It’s where one finds a nice clean toilet rather than a public restroom that looks like Paleolithic people have been using it to eviscerate their goats.

A second reason is that I’m in the midst of writing a book. Work is a necessity of life. Retirement can be fatal.

Another reason for my cheery demeanor is that my wife is the critic in the family; she has better taste and discernment, she talks out loud to other drivers on the road (“If you’re going to turn, turn, bozo.”), she casts a critical eye on architecture (“That’s not a church, that’s a warehouse”) and the clothing of passersby (“Look at that man and promise me you’ll never wear a bright orange shirt with a blue tie and white polyester slacks”), and she is absolutely right on the mark. This leaves me free to coast along in easygoing contentment.

This weekend we were in Greenville, S.C., where I enjoyed phenomenal shrimp and grits, great iced tea, incredible company, and a beautiful hotel, beautiful inside and out. We attended a birthday party. There were other people in attendance who may not have been liberal Democrats, just as in any large group you may find people who don’t love grand opera or haven’t read Proust, but in my current live-and-let-live mood, I didn’t bring up the subject. And at the end of the day, my wife and I saw an ice cream stand and walked up and stood in line at the counter. An enormous pickup truck went by, tailpipes roaring, bumper stickers proclaiming the driver’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Fine by me. The war ended a hundred and fifty years ago, but if it’s that important to you, bless your heart. We ordered our ice cream, vanilla and Moroccan mint for her, caramel with hazelnuts for me.

It was only ice cream, but it took my mind off whatever may be happening between Putin and our man in Helsinki, whether Putin has our man’s credit cards and car keys, or just his Twitter password — that ice cream gave me a good feeling. The product was phenomenal, so good I thought maybe the cows were English or British or from the U.K. or all three.

I ate my ice cream slowly. Scripture says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” which is an extremely high standard of behavior, but I did my best. My wife sat next to me, her thigh against mine. I thank Him for her, for the firmament, and also for caramel ice cream. If it be His will, I intend to have a hot fudge sundae tomorrow.

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

It makes a person appreciate summer more when you’ve had a miserable winter, so I’ve got that going for me. Dismal dark cold days for which there are no useful pharmaceuticals, depressed Democrats around you, and then a day of freezing rain, which, thanks to the ice in the downspouts, drains through your dining room ceiling while you are at yoga and you come home from two hours of humiliation in the company of slender millennials to find your antique table covered with wet plaster. That is what you need in order to fully appreciate July.

Of course it helps to be married to the right person. Early in the courtship stage, the subject of camping, canoeing, rock climbing, needs to be brought up, right after sexual preference and before religious beliefs, if any. I met my wife in New York at a restaurant. She was not wearing hiking boots, she didn’t smell of insect repellant. We’ve been mostly quite happy ever since. She is a runner but I can deal with that. She runs, she comes back, she doesn’t need me to run with her. I stay home and read great American novels.

There are not many great novels about camping, except for Grapes of Wrath and Red Badge of Courage, and in neither book is camping done for pleasure. The campers were fleeing the Dust Bowl or they were pitching their tents at Chancellorsville, preparing to die. Nothing recreational about it.

Why have practically no great works of art come out of the camping experience? Name one Beethoven symphony, one Van Gogh painting, one Shakespearean sonnet inspired by a week cooking over an open fire and sleeping on stony ground. You can’t name one.

Answer: because camping is about boredom. The campers I know are your usual left-wing environmentalists who are in a daily fury reading the newspaper and seeing those names in the headlines, Pruitt, Giuliani, McConnell, Pompeo, Pence, Ryan, Stormy Daniels, Cohen, Manafort, and the one that rhymes with “hump,” and they decide that two weeks’ backpacking on the Appalachian Trail will clear their minds and when they return, they are very subdued. Ask them about the hike, they’ll e-mail you photos, many of the rear end of the hiker ahead of them. A week on the trail is a refugee experience and most hikers decide that having a coffeemaker and innerspring mattress is more important than ideology. It’s the truth. Offered the choice between a two-week canoe trip and becoming a Republican, I’d choose door number two. A liberal Republican, but still.

I’m sorry you asked me how I feel about camping. I would’ve written about the trade war with China instead, something of real import in our lives, but instead you get this harangue. I apologize. But I was a camp counselor once, in charge of a dozen teenage boys, taking them on canoe trips, all of them suffering the fear of snakes, severe constipation, hearing tall trees falling in the night, one of which might have your name on it. Those boys would be in their early sixties now and I’ll bet not one of them has occupied a sleeping bag since then.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin by a lake. It is surrounded by woods but there is a screened porch, a refrigerator, a flush toilet and toilet paper. On that canoe trip with the boys, we ran out of toilet paper and one boy used leaves instead. There is a particular brand of leaves that does not make good toilet paper. I hope he is all right. Thank you for listening. Have a nice day. Stay home. Be happy.

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to walk on the moon. It was actually July 20 in the United States, nearly 11 o’clock p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but according to Greenwich Mean Time, it was already almost 3 a.m. on the 21st.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. Of the 366 poems in his collection Il Canzoniere, 316 were in sonnet form–and today we call that type of sonnet “Italian” or “Petrarchan.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

On this date in 1848, the first Convention for Women’s Rights opened in Seneca Falls, New York. Reporting on the event, the Oneida Whig wrote: “This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for her memoir Eat Pray Love. She said: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you…Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

On this date in 1867, Harvard Dental School, the first university-based dental school in the United States was founded. Prior to the 19th century, dental treatment options were extremely limited: If you had a toothache, you went to the barber-surgeon — or even the blacksmith — to have the tooth pulled, with no anesthesia.

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TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

For 25 years, Garrison Keillor has been highlighting poetry and the written word as well as pertinent literary and historical dates in a 5-minute radio segment and podcast. This brand new T-shirt commemorates that history, with The Writer’s Almanac logo emblazoned across the front chest along and “25th Anniversary” on the sleeve. This lightweight, fitted poly/cotton blend is available in sizes S – XXL.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was published on this date in 1951. The book took Salinger 10 years to write, and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in the country.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who founded the literary analysis technique known as deconstruction and who famously proclaimed that “there is nothing outside the text.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 14, 2018

Today is the birthday of Woody Guthrie (born 1912), who once wrote a song about Billy the Kid. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of the day Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 in New Mexico Territory.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 13, 2018

Today is the 41st anniversary of the 1977 blackout in New York City. It is also the birthday of poet John Clare, whose poem “The Sweetest Woman There” is featured in today’s episode. In 1840, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he wrote some of his best poetry.

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Writing

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

Read More

What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

Read More

Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

Read More

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