The Writer’s Almanac for July 12, 2018

“Leisure” by William Henry Davies. Public domain. (buy now)

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


It was on this day in 1389 that Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author) was appointed “clerk of the king’s works” for Richard II. In his official notice, Chaucer was declared to be in charge of “our works at our Palace of Westminster, our Tower of London, our Castle of Berkhamstead, our Manors of Hennington, Eltham, Clerendon, Shene, Byfleet, Chiltern, Langley, and Feckenham, our Lodges of Hathebergh in our New Forest, and at our other parks, and our Mews for falcons at Chering Cross; likewise our gardens, fishponds, mills and park enclosures pertaining to the said Palace, Tower, Castles, Manors, Lodges, and Mews, with power (by self or deputy) to choose and take masons, carpenters and all sundry other workmen and laborers who are needful for our works, wheresoever they can be found, within or without all liberties (Church fee alone excepted); and to set the same to labor at the said works, at our wages.”

It was a good deal for Chaucer — his salary more than tripled from his previous appointment as a manager of customs — but he only stayed in the position for two years. No one knows whether he quit or was fired. His next job was managing a royal forest; and for a few years, there are official records that the government paid Chaucer yearly annuities of money and of wine. In 1399, he took out a 53-year lease for a house on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, and then completely disappeared from the record. His gravestone says that he died in 1400, but since the gravestone was probably erected in the 1550s, there is no evidence that the date is accurate, and no one knows how or when he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey because he lived there and because of his position as clerk of the king’s works. In the 16th century, a larger tomb was erected for Chaucer, and Edmund Spenser was buried nearby. This began a tradition of burying writers in what became known as “Poets’ Corner.”


It’s the birthday of poet Pablo Neruda (books by this author), born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile (1904). In 1923, when he was 19, he sold all his possessions in order to publish his first book, Crepusculario (Twilight). Because his father didn’t approve of his writing poetry, he published it under the pen name Pablo Neruda. In 1924, he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, known in English as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which made him famous. Neruda always wrote in green ink, because he believed it was the color of hope.

In 1927, he began a second career as a diplomat. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971.


It’s the birthday of the man who said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” That’s Henry David Thoreau, (books by this author) born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, which has become a beloved classic.


It’s the birthday of mystery novelist Donald Westlake, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York, (1933), the author of more than 100 books.

He worked as slush-pile reader for New York-based magazines, and at night he wrote his own short stories — things that did not often advance past the slush pile. In fact, he received 204 rejection slips before his first short story was ever accepted. But soon after that, the first novel he wrote was accepted by Random House. It was called The Mercenaries (1960), it was huge best-seller, and it was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

He wrote fast, sometimes publishing four books a year. Publishers had reservations about releasing multiple titles in one year by a single author. And for this reason — especially early in his career, when he was furiously prolific — he used pen names. Mystery novelist Donald Westlake was also mystery novelist Richard Stark, and he was Curt Clark, and Timothy J. Culver, and Tucker Coe. And he was Samuel Holt and also Edwin West.

Almost all of his books are set in New York City. His two most famous characters: one a bumbling, disorganized criminal, John Dortmunder, and the other a callous felon named Parker.

Westlake wrote on a typewriter — manual typewriters, not the electric kind — from the 1950s through the 1990s and into the 21st century, up until he died on New Year’s Eve 2008 from a heart attack at the age of 75. His reasoning: “I don’t want to sit there while I am thinking and have something hum at me.” For decades, he wrote in the middle of the night, getting started at 10 in the evening and going through till 4 in the morning. But later he moved his work schedule to daytime — still seven days a week — saying, “I loved it [working at night], but social reality impeded. Now I wander in here at 9 in the morning or so, and come back for a while in the afternoon. I am a very lenient boss.” He usually wrote about 7,000 words in one sitting, which is something like 25 double-spaced pages in 12-point Times New Roman font.


It’s the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesarborn in Rome around 100 B.C. He came from an aristocratic family that traced its lineage back to the goddess Venus, but by the time he was born, his parents weren’t rich or even distinguished. And so it was rather ambitious of him to try to become a Roman politician, at a time when it was almost a requirement for all politicians to come from powerful families.

In the last years of his life, Caesar was appointed absolute dictator of Rome. He had ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land, and he began planning public works and an invasion of Germany. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate. Caesar died from over 20 stab wounds.

Julius Caesar said, “Which death is preferably to every other? The unexpected.”

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A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

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