The Writer’s Almanac for July 25, 2018

“Recipe for a Salad” by Sydney Smith. Public domain.

To make this condiment, your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen-sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half-suspected, animate the whole.
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt.
And, lastly, o’er the flavored compound toss
A magic soup-spoon of anchovy sauce.
Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbaceous treat!
‘T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat;
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
Fate can not harm me, I have dined to-day!


It was on this day in 1897 that 21-year-old novelist Jack London (books by this authorsailed from San Francisco, on his way to the Klondike to search for gold. He was on board the SS Umatilla with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, who was close to 70 years old. Shepard and his wife, Eliza, who was London’s sister, mortgaged their house to afford the passage and gear for the two men. They had a smooth eight-day trip from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and then took boats to Dyea Beach, the start of the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was a difficult 33-mile journey through the Chilkoot Pass, but it was the most direct route from the coast of Alaska to the Yukon. When Shepard saw the Chilkoot Pass, he realized that there was no way he would make it. He gave all his gear to London and went home to California.

The Chilkoot Trail was brutal. The trail rose a thousand feet in the last half mile, and men had to carry all their gear on their backs because it was too steep for animals. Prospectors climbed in one single-file line. If anyone faltered and got out of line, they were not let back in. So many men were unable to survive in the Klondike that the Canadian Mounted Police mandated that all prospectors bring one ton of supplies, the minimum for a year there. So London had to climb up the Chilkoot Pass over and over, with 100-pound loads each time.

Once London made it over Chilkoot Pass, he was in Canada. From there, it was 500 miles to Dawson City, the outpost of the gold rush. After hiking through a frigid marsh up to his knees, London arrived at Lake Lindemann, the beginning of a web of rivers and lakes that would eventually lead to Dawson City. London reached Dawson City just as the Arctic winter was setting in. London came down with scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables, and was forced to head back to the ocean. He was not alone in turning back. Of the 100,000 potential prospectors who set out for Dawson, only about 30 percent made it, and of those, about 4,000 actually found gold.

London returned to San Francisco sick and depressed, but he started writing about his adventures in the Yukon. The Atlantic Monthly accepted his story “An Odyssey of the North,” in which he wrote: “On the bottom there was a cabin, built by some man, of logs which he had cast down from above. It was a very old cabin, for men had died there alone at different times, and on pieces of birch bark which were there we read their last words and their curses. One had died of scurvy; another’s partner had robbed him of his last grub and powder and stolen away; a third had been mauled by a baldface grizzly; a fourth had hunted for game and starved — and so it went, and they had been loath to leave the gold, and had died by the side of it in one way or another. And the worthless gold they had gathered yellowed the floor of the cabin like in a dream.” In the year 1899, London published more than 50 pieces — poems, essays, and stories. Early in 1900, he published his first book, Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories based on his adventures in the Klondike, and that led to his book The Call of the Wild (1903), which made his career.


 It was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of one of his most beloved works, Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). It was written in the final years of Mozart’s life, when things were not going well. An infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier, he had moved into a cheaper apartment, and he was begging friends and acquaintances for loans. But he wrote his last three symphonies, in the summer of 1788: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony in G Minor, and the Jupiter symphony. It is not known for sure whether Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.


It’s the birthday of novelist and playwright Elias Canetti, (books by this author) born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). His family was one of the oldest Sephardic Jewish families in Bulgaria, a family of successful merchants.

The family lived in England for a while, then in Vienna after his father died, then in Germany. His first book to gain much notice outside the German-speaking world was Crowds and Power (1960), about the mentality of crowds and how leaders are able to control them. After Crowds and Power became famous, people went back to look at what else he had written, and started reading his novel, Auto-da-Fé (1935, first published in German as Die Blendung). He won the Nobel Prize in 1981.

In The Human Province (1978), he wrote: “His head is made of stars, but not yet arranged into constellations.”


The Concorde crashed outside Paris on this date in 2000, killing all 109 people aboard. Four people on the ground were also killed when the jet crashed into a small hotel and restaurant. Shortly after take-off, one of the tires burst, and the debris struck a fuel tank, which ruptured and burst into flames.

The Concorde was the world’s first supersonic commercial passenger plane. Its first flight was on March 2, 1969, and it traveled twice the speed of sound. It cost so much to develop that it never made any money. It made its maiden transatlantic flight in September 1973, and at first it was only flown on two routes: from London to Bahrain, by British Airways; and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, by Air France. Regular service to Washington, D.C., was added in 1976, and to New York in 1977. It was noisy and expensive to operate, and eventually all routes were cut except to and from New York. Both airlines stopped flying the Concorde altogether in 2003.


Today is the anniversary of the first successful demonstration of a commercial electric telegraph in 1837. The technology had arisen slowly as an offshoot of experiments with electricity. Scientists had proven in 1746 that electrical current traveled quickly; the first suggestion to use it as a means of communication had been made in 1753, in an anonymous letter to Scots Magazine. Early attempts weren’t very encouraging; they were too dependent on weather conditions, too easily disrupted, and couldn’t go very far. Some worked but just weren’t practical, including a German design that used separate wires for each letter of the alphabet and numeral. The wires were submerged in glass tubes filled with acid, and the receiver had to watch the tubes and record the letters as the tubes bubbled. Another design worked over longer distances, but it was slow, transmitting two letters per minute.

British inventors Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph to be used as an alarm system. It had six wires and five needle pointers, which pointed at the letters on a plate. They first demonstrated it successfully on this date in 1837, between Euston and Camden Town in London. Two years later, the Great Western Railway put it into use over a 13-mile stretch from Paddington Station to West Drayton. Six years after that, their electrical telegraph helped catch a murderer who had escaped on a train.


Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis debuted at Atlantic City’s 500 Club as an improv comedy duo on this date in 1946. They’d met in 1945. Lewis was in New York with a friend, singer Sonny King, when they ran into Martin on the street. King knew Martin, and introduced them. Martin had been working as a crooner, and Lewis had his own comedy routine lip-synching to records. Their paths would cross from time to time, and later, when Lewis was working at the 500 Club and heard they were looking for a singer, he suggested Martin. They started heckling each other’s acts, and one day they decided to make it official.

They had first taken the stage before midnight, on the 24th, with a scripted act, but they were terrible. Skinny D’Amato, the owner of the club, told them they’d better do better for the second show that night, or they’d be canned. During an impromptu strategy session in the alley, they decided to go for broke and perform the whole thing off the cuff. Songs, vaudeville, slapstick, breaking dishes: nothing was off limits. They were a huge hit. Comedian Alan King remembered, “They didn’t get laughs — it was pandemonium. People knocked over tables.” In his memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story (2005), Lewis explained his theory: “You have to remember: Postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, Presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came straight out of the blue — nobody was expecting anything like Martin and Lewis. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id.”

They played to each other and ignored the audience, and the energy they generated through their improv was unmatched, even in an era of great comic duos. “Like Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby, we were vaudevillians, stage performers who worked with an audience,” wrote Lewis. “But the difference between us and all the others is significant. They worked with a script. We exploded without one, the same way wiseguy kids do on a playground, or jazz musicians do when they’re let loose.”


It’s the birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived via in vitro insemination. “In vitro” means “in glass,” so for years she was referred to as the first “test tube baby.” She was born in Oldham, Great Britain, in 1978, to Lesley and John Brown, who had tried to conceive a child for nine years. Lesley had blocked fallopian tubes, which meant her eggs were unable to reach the uterus to be fertilized. After trying several doctors, the Browns were referred to Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards. They’d been working on alternative methods of conception since 1966, and though they’d been successful with a version of in vitro fertilization performed on animals, they hadn’t been able to duplicate those results in humans, even after 80 tries. They were able to fertilize the egg, but the resulting embryos had only survived a few weeks after they were returned to the mothers’ bodies.

The doctors began the procedure in the usual way: retrieving the egg, mixing it with John’s sperm, and allowing the fertilized egg to divide for a few days in a special solution. But with the Browns, they decided to transfer the fertilized egg into Lesley’s uterus after only two and a half days, rather than waiting four or five, as they’d done previously. This time, the embryo survived, and Lesley had a fairly uneventful pregnancy until the very end, when her blood pressure became very high and the doctors decided to deliver the baby nine days early by cesarean section. Louise Joy Brown was born at 11:47 p.m., with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she weighed five pounds, 12 ounces.

Louise was followed four years later by her sister Natalie, who was also conceived by IVF. She was the 40th IVF baby, and the first one to have a baby herself, which she did in 1999.

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"Alexandria, 1953" by Gregory Djanikian, from Falling Deeply into America. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.

Even on the back streets
You could feel it on your skin,
You could smell it in the aroma
Of dark coffee, spiced meat.

You looked at the sea and you heard
The wail of an Arab woman singing or praying.

If, as I can now, you could point
To the North Atlantic, swollen
And dark as it often is, you might say,
"Here lies Wrath," or "Truly God is great."
You could season a Puritan soul by it.

But you could fall into the Mediterranean
As though you were falling into a blue dream,
Gauzy, half unreal for its loveliness.
It was deceptively calm and luxurious.
At Stanley Bay, you could float
On your back and watch the evening sun
Color the city a faint rose.
You could drown, it was said,
Almost without knowing it.


It was on this day in 1940 that the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (books by this author) was mortally wounded when his assassin lodged an ice pick into his skull in Mexico City.

Stalin had exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929, and he went to Turkey, then France, then Norway, all the while writing books, including a three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1932). Mexico offered him asylum, in part thanks to the support of painter Diego Rivera. While he was in Mexico City, Trotsky had an affair with Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, and he continued to write.

The assassin made it into Trotsky's heavily guarded home and asked Trotsky to read something he had written. Then he pulled the ice pick out of his coat and attacked Trotsky, who died the next day.

Trotsky's murder is a central event in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna (2009), and in David Ives' one-act play Variations on the Death of Trotsky (1993).


On this date in 1975, NASA launched the Viking 1 mission to Mars. Its sister, Viking 2, was launched about three weeks later. Each Viking mission consisted of a matching lander and orbiter, which separated upon reaching Mars' orbit. The Viking project made history as the first United States mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of the red planet. Viking gathered samples, took pictures, and conducted experiments designed to look for signs of life; while the experiments yielded some interesting results, there was no definitive proof of life as we know it. Scientists believe that Mars may be "self-cleaning": Solar radiation and the extremely dry and chemically inhospitable soil would make it very difficult for organisms to survive.

Viking 1 was designed to carry out its mission for 90 days, but it actually continued sending data far beyond that period. Orbiter 1 operated for four years; Lander 1, for more than seven years.


On this date in 1977NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft. They timed the launch to coincide with a rare planetary alignment that allowed the craft to make use of each planet's gravity to boost it on its way. The original purpose of the mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn; it's since passed Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and is now considered an "interstellar mission" because it still has enough velocity to leave the solar system. It's currently flying through the heliopause: the area where the solar wind is opposed by hydrogen and helium gases from interstellar space, forming a kind of bubble around the solar system. Scientists believe it will be able to continue sending back signals until at least 2025.

Voyager 1 and 2 also carry golden records, with pictographic instructions on how to play them. The records contain sounds, images, and welcome messages from Earth, as well as a map to our location. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that decided what should go on the record. He said: "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet." President Jimmy Carter included his own message on the record: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."


It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons with the famous line: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The Battle of Britain was raging, and he was referring to the small group of the Royal Air Force who had successfully held off the much larger Luftwaffe, the German air force.

Churchill wrote all of his own speeches, and he was a gifted orator, but people thought that his vocabulary and style of speaking were old-fashioned. But after the beginning of World War II, Churchill's dramatic rhetoric fit the mood of the country.

His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, served in the Parliament and was a talented debater, famous for making spontaneous speeches. Winston, on the other hand, labored over every speech. He brainstormed, researched, planned out the speech in his head, then dictated it aloud to his secretary. From there, he revised it several times and typed it up in what he called "psalm form." His speeches looked like blank verse poetry on the page, so that the rhythm and pauses were laid out just how he wanted them. Before Churchill delivered a speech, he would practice over and over, sometimes in the bathtub.


It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh (books by this author), born in San Diego, California (1948). She said: "I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it's harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually." She went to Harvard when she was 16 and sold her first poem to The New Yorker a year later. Her books of poetry include Dangers (1977), A World of Difference (1981), Hinge & Sign (1994), and Upgraded to Serious (2009).


It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author), born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called "weird fiction." He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: "I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams."

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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?

Manhattan is a long thin island, so we don’t need a car here, and among pedestrians, one is surrounded by good manners. Biking is dangerous. A young woman from Australia was killed Friday when she swerved on her bike to avoid an Uber driver pulling out into the bike lane and she was struck down by a truck. Her name was Maddie Lyden, she was 23, she had just graduated from college and given herself a trip to America, her dream trip. She died a mile from my apartment and I didn’t know about it until Monday.

When I moved into this apartment back in 1990, I was struck by three deaths that happened in my vicinity. A former Rockette was killed by a demented man as she walked her dog early one morning on 69th Street and Central Park. A young woman working in a Gap store on 57th was killed by a robber as she opened the door for business. A young man from Provo, Utah, was killed on the 7th Avenue B-train station platform, defending his mother against a gang of muggers. I think of the three of them whenever I pass the places where they died.

We’re interconnected here.  I sit in a café and the woman across the room tapping on her laptop may be writing a novel that will be a best-seller and here I am, trying to remember Frayne Anderson, the English teacher in Anoka, Minnesota, who gave me a copy of The New Yorker when I was 14.  A certain decorum is observed. I don’t ask her what she’s writing, she doesn’t ask me, but we’re connected. I once boarded a downtown B train and sat down and noticed that the black lady across the aisle was reading a book of mine. She looked like a lawyer. She didn’t laugh but she kept reading. It was hard watching her for fear she’d make a face and slam the book shut and I got off the train. It was 7th Avenue.

Writing a best-selling novel was once my fairy tale, but I’m over it now. I’m engrossed in the memoir. It’s my obligation, seeing as I grew up in America after World War II, when children roamed the countryside freely, no cellphones on them for their parents to ascertain their whereabouts, and we worked hoeing corn for truck farmers and learned about drudgery and if we wanted to go to town, we hitchhiked and sometimes got a ride from a drunk who was speeding and cursing his wife. I’m not nostalgic about this. I’m grateful to have survived more or less intact.

I think of the novelists I know and if I were to turn my back on the factual and think fiction I could make myself into a tragic hero, misunderstood by old friends and family, but the truth is, my life is one piece of good luck after another, the most recent being my wife of 23 years who is walking alongside me down Columbus toward Lincoln Center, setting a brisk pace. A good marriage is worth more than a best-selling novel, take my word for it, I’ve been there.

“My Fair Lady” is playing at the Center. We saw it and she said she’d like to see it again. “Fine,” I say, as I’m thinking about Maddie Lyden who was struck down on her bike one block east of here, at 66th and Central Park West. The Uber driver was careless, the truck driver was ticketed for DUI, Maddie was riding a rental bike and didn’t get a helmet.

It’s hard to put all this in one rational column, the tragedy of Maddie, the summer nights, the reader on the train, my good wife, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” but now I’ve reached 750 words, my limit, and must get back to work on the memoir. That’s life in New York. Take care. Look both ways always.

My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

I felt good on Sunday because I’d been to church and a middle-aged lesbian couple walked in and sat in the pew in front of me, and I felt warmly toward them, being the high-class liberal that I am, and then they turned for the Exchange of Peace and one of them was a man. A man with a deep voice. He said, “The peace of the Lord.” So I had been extending my tolerance toward Dick and Jane, not Vicky and Jane. Interesting.

I also felt good because on Saturday I stopped to look at a yard sale and there, among all the trashy stuff, the unwanted gifts, the novelty socks, the shirt that said, “Help Me, I’ve Fallen And I Cannot Reach My Beer,” the unused exercise bike, the unread books, was a book I wrote, mint condition, unread, list price of 20 bucks, now on sale for 35 cents. I bought it, of course. An arthur doesn’t want to see a book of his go so cheaply.

It was my collection of sonnets, very intense and dense and sensitive, which had sold about 46 copies when it came out and which I wrote to shine up my reputation. I’d done a radio show for decades on which we did comedy routines that involved the expulsion of stomach gas. Juvenile humor, and yet it convulsed audiences left and right, sketches in which an actor bent over and the sound effects man squeezed the whoopee cushion and the audience fell apart, many of them expelling gases in the process.

As a man ventures into his 70s, he thinks about his legacy, and so I wrote sonnets, just as Shakespeare did, about mortality and the power of love to overcome shame and doubt, and here was my work sitting in a yard with some beer mugs and figurines, on sale for 35 cents. It was a shock.

Of course I’ve been disillusioned before — I’ve voted for Democrats, I know what disappointment is — but I took my sonnets and resolved to put aside regret, of which I have enough already. In church, we ask forgiveness for what we have done and what we have left undone and the Left Undone list is very long, but you leave it with the Lord and are forgiven and shake hands with the lesbian couple except now they aren’t. What you thought was diversity turns out to be just folks.

I am now looking for someone to give the sonnets to. It’s my birthday August 7 and my love and I are taking two young couples to dinner. This is to preclude a conversation about how lovely life was before all these passwords and people texting on their phones and posting on Facebook instead of conversing with actual people. I will let the couples draw straws for the sonnets. Instead of stewing about regrets, we can talk about the power of love. It is an old man’s privilege to natter and I intend to. I will tell them that a good marriage is worth the trouble. Nothing sweeter. Remember that not all feelings need to be aired. When in doubt, smile and say, “I love you.” And look for opportunities to amaze the other. If necessary, fry up your own words with melted cheese and eat them. It can’t hurt. This goes for gay couples, straight, curly, LSMFT, ILGWU, NFL, the whole spectrum.

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5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

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5:30 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

It was on this day in 1940 that an assassin mortally wounded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky using an ice pick while Trotsky was staying in Mexico City.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

Today is the birthday of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek series. Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

On this day in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published in the United States by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The book was a sensation, selling more than 100,000 copies in one week–the first novel to do so since Gone with the Wind.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

On this date in 1982, the first compact discs for commercial release were manufactured in Germany. The first album sold in disc form on this date? ABBA’s 1981 album The Visitors.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

“The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.”
–Charles Bukowski, born on this day in 1920

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of Stieg Larsson, a muckracking journalist and anti-fascist who originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. His psychological thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in 2005 (along with the other two novels he’d finished in the Millenium series) and went on to become a global phenomenon.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

It was on this day in 1935 that the original Social Security Act was passed. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it was first intended to help keep senior citizens out of poverty, which it still does.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock, who proposed that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

Today is the birthday of the person who wrote the lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!” That’s Katharine Lee Bates, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1859.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, born Sunnyvale, CA in 1950. The Apple 1 computer came about when Wozniak got the idea to pair a typewriter keyboard with a television. Wozniak & Steve Jobs hoped to sell at least 50 of them. Seven years later, their company had a stock value of $985 million.

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Writing

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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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

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Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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