The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth” by John Milton. Public domain. (buy now)

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.


It’s the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, (books by this author) born in Oak Park, Illinois (1899). He was just 22 when he moved to Paris with his wife, Hadley, having taken a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. Even though he was making decent money, he liked the idea of living like a bohemian, so they moved into an apartment in the Latin Quarter, in a neighborhood full of drunks, beggars, and street musicians. Rent was 250 francs a month, or about $18, which left them plenty of money to travel around Europe when they wanted to.

He rented himself a room in a hotel, and every morning, after breakfast, he would walk to his writing room and work. He said: “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.'” One of those sentences read, “I have stood on the crowded back platform of a seven o’clock … bus as it lurched along the wet lamp lit street while men who were going home to supper never looked up from their newspapers as we passed Notre Dame grey and dripping in the rain.”


It’s the birthday of Hart Crane, (books by this author) born Harold Hart Crane in Garrettsville, Ohio (1899). His mother was a Chicago debutante and his father was a very successful candy businessman. An only child, he was frequently left in the company of various relatives while his parents went off on business trips together.

From the time he was a teenager, he knew that he was gay, and he was fascinated by the life and career of Oscar Wilde. When his parents’ marriage fell apart, Crane dropped out of school and took a train from Cleveland to New York to begin life as a poet. He loved being in New York, hanging out with poets like E. E. Cummings and Allen Tate. But he had trouble making a living there, couldn’t hold down a job. His drinking got worse and worse, and soon he was a serious alcoholic. In 1932, at the age of 33, he killed himself by jumping overboard a steam ship on his way from Mexico to New York. He left behind his masterpiece, The Bridge (1930).


Today is the birthday of Canadian detective novelist Michael Connelly (1956) (books by this author), born in London, Ontario. His father was a frustrated artist-turned-property developer, and his mother was a fan of crime fiction; she’s the one who introduced Michael to detective novels. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Connelly was 11. When he was 16, he saw a man ditch a gun in some bushes, so he followed him to a bar, and then went to get the police. By the time they returned, the suspect was gone, but the incident whetted his interested in police procedure. He never had any thought of writing, though, until he was in college. He discovered Raymond Chandler’s books after he saw the film version of The Long Goodbye (novel, 1953; film, 1973). He went home and read all of Chandler’s books, and he switched his major from the building trade to journalism, with a minor in creative writing. He was a reporter on the crime beat for a series of newspapers and then started writing detective fiction. He’s since written a couple of dozen crime books, many of them featuring cop Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.


On this day in 1969Neil 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.

Apollo 11 left Earth on July 16, took about three days to reach the moon’s orbit, and then the lunar module, the Eagle, touched down safely on July 20, on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong had prepared a few words, and he nearly got them right; he had meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. followed him about 20 minutes later. They spent two hours on the moon’s surface; they took lots of photographs, collected about 50 pounds of moon rock, and set up several devices to take measurements of solar wind and moonquakes. Though they may have wanted to spend more time exploring, there were too many unknowns to allow for wandering. The temperature on the bright side of the moon was about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they weren’t sure how long their water-cooled suits could keep out the heat. NASA wanted them to stay within range of the fixed camera. And ultimately, they were there on an important — and dangerous — scientific mission, not a sightseeing trip, however tempting this new world must have been. Armstrong later wrote: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Before they left, they planted an American flag, and also a plaque, which read, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon — July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”


Today is the anniversary of the first Wild West showdown. It happened in the market square in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865. The parties involved were James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok — a professional gambler and former Union scout — and Davis Tutt, a cowboy and former Confederate soldier. The two men had a falling out over a woman and a gambling debt, and finally agreed to settle their differences in a duel. They faced off at a distance of about 75 paces, and fired simultaneously. Tutt’s shot went wild, but Hickok’s hit Tutt through the heart.

A few years later, George Ward Nichols published a story about Hickok in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that made the gunslinger a household name throughout the country.

An excerpt from the Harper’s profile:
“In vain did I examine the scout’s face for some evidence of murderous propensity. It was a gentle face, and singular only in the sharp angle of the eye, and without any physical reason for the opinion, I have thought his wonderful accuracy of aim was indicated by this peculiarity. He told me, however, to use his own words: ‘I allers shot well; but I come ter be perfeck in the mountains by shootin at a dime for a mark, at bets of half a dollar a shot. And then until the war I never drank liquor nor smoked,’ he continued, with a melancholy expression; ‘war is demoralizing, it is.'”

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

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This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

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A man watching his own heartbeat

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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