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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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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Writing

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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

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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