The Writer’s Almanac for July 26, 2018

“How the Trees on Summer Nights Turn into a Dark River,” by Barbara Crooker from More. © C & R Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

how you can never reach it, no matter how hard you try,
walking as fast as you can, but getting nowhere,
arms and legs pumping, sweat drizzling in rivulets;
each year, a little slower, more creaks and aches, less breath.
Ah, but these soft nights, air like a warm bath, the dusky wings
of bats careening crazily overhead, and you’d think the road
goes on forever. Apollinaire wrote, “What isn’t given to love
is so much wasted,” and I wonder what I haven’t given yet.
A thin comma moon rises orange, a skinny slice of melon,
so delicious I could drown in its sweetness. Or eat the whole
thing, down to the rind. Always, this hunger for more.


Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (1894) (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey. He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist and man of letters who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley wrote a few of novels that satirized English literary society, and these established him as a writer; it was his fifth book, Brave New World (1932), which arose out of his distrust of 20th century politics and technology, for which he is most remembered. Huxley started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian novel Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called Soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

It’s natural to compare Brave New World with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”


Today is the birthday of the man who said, “If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion” and “War does not decide who is right, but who is left”: playwright and founder of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin in 1856. He moved to London with his mother in 1876, determined to be a writer. His first attempts at fiction were failures by nearly any standard. He wrote a semiautobiographical novel, the aptly titled Immaturity, in 1879; no publisher in London would touch it. (It was finally published in 1930, after he was famous.) He then wrote four more novels without publishing any of them, either. He tried submitting articles to various newspapers for a decade, and not a single one ever ran. His last attempt at fiction was published posthumously as An Unfinished Novel, which he worked on in 1887-8 and finally gave up on. He earned less than 10 shillings a year from writing during this period; luckily his mother made enough as a music teacher to support them both.

In the mid-1880s, he finally got work as a journalist, writing book reviews and a music column, and later, as a theater critic. He made a good living, and his reviews were witty. In them he argued passionately that the theater needed fresh ideas, and that’s when he started to write his own plays. He’s best known for Pygmalion (1912), about a Cockney girl who’s taught to talk like a lady. It was made into a film in 1938, and also a musical, My Fair Lady (the stage version premiered in 1956; the film version was released in 1964). He also wrote Arms and the Man (1894), which was his first popular success, as well as Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), and Saint Joan (1923). He’s considered one of the most significant English-language playwrights since Shakespeare, and also nearly as widely quoted. He’s the one who gave us “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” and “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches,” and “People who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of people who are doing it.”


On this day in 1908, W. B. Yeats’ muse, Maud Gonne, wrote Yeats a letter where she described having a ghostly vision of him the previous night. At the time, Maud Gonne was living in Paris, had already turned down four marriage proposals from Yeats in the past two decades, and married a man whom Yeats considered a brute.

Both Yeats and Gonne were deeply interested in the occult. They were each members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British secret society that practiced ritual magic, trances, and invocations in order to access hidden wisdom. On this day, she described to Yeats her “astral” visit to him that night before. She wrote:

“Willie —
Last night all my household had retired at a quarter to 11 and I thought I would go to you astrally […]

We went somewhere in space I don’t know where — I was conscious of starlight & of hearing the sea below us. You had taken the form I think of a great serpent, but I am not quite sure. I only saw your face distinctly & as I looked into your eyes (as I did the day in Paris you asked me what I was thinking of) & your lips touched mine. We melted into one another till we formed only one being, a being greater than ourselves who felt all & knew all with double intensity — the clock striking 11 broke the spell & as we separated it felt as if life was being drawn away from me through my chest with almost physical pain.”

In a poem inspired by Maud Gonne, Yeats wrote:

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with the golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”


It’s the birthday of Carl Jung, (books by this author) born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that myths and fairytales from all kinds of different cultures have certain similarities. He called these similarities archetypes, and he believed that archetypes come from a collective unconscious that all humans share. He said that if people get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they will be happier and healthier.

 


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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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A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

From Charlotte, NC with legendary blues singer Nappy Brown, big time country artist Suzy Bogguss, prodigious ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, and national banjo champion Charles Wood.

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It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

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It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

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It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941), who played the last show of his farewell tour last month in his hometown of Queens, New York.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

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“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.” ––Alice Childress, born this day in 1916

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

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It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

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Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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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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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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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

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

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

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

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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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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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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