The Writer’s Almanac for July 4, 2018

“This is what you shall do…” by Walt Whitman, from the preface of Leaves of Grass. Public domain. (buy now)

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.


Today is Independence Day. It marks the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The document was approved and signed on July 2, and was formally adopted on July 4; John Adams always felt that the Second of July was America’s true birthday, and wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the date “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” He envisioned “Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” He reportedly refused to appear at annual Fourth of July celebrations for the rest of his life, in protest. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption — as did Thomas Jefferson, who had written most of the document.

It was traditional in the British Colonies to celebrate the king’s birthday every summer, with bonfires, parades, and speeches. During the summer of 1776, they held mock funerals for King George instead — with bonfires, parades, and speeches. They also read the Declaration of Independence aloud as soon as it was adopted. Philadelphia held the first formal Independence Day celebration in 1777, with bells and fireworks; in 1778, General George Washington called for double rations of rum for the troops, and in 1781, Massachusetts was the first to name July 4 an official state holiday. Congress declared it a national holiday in 1870.

Jefferson turned down a request to appear at the 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C.; it was the last letter he ever wrote, and in it he expressed his hope for the Declaration of Independence:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. […] All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”


It’s the birthday of playwright Neil Simon (books by this author), born Marvin Neil Simon in New York City in 1927. He’s the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history, and he’s the only playwright to have four Broadway productions running at the same time. He’s made a nice living for himself depicting the struggles — many of them matrimonial — of ordinary middle-class people, to comedic effect.

His father Irving was a garment salesman, and he had a tendency to disappear every so often, so Simon’s mother Mamie supported her family by working in department stores. In 1946, Simon’s older brother Danny, who worked in the publicity department at Warner Bros., got him a job in the studio’s mailroom; by 1948 they were working together, writing material for Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. His first big break came in the early 1950s when he got a job on Sid Caesar’s live television program Your Show of Shows, joining a writing staff that included Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks.

Much of Simon’s work is semi-autobiographical. The Odd Couple (1966) came about after Simon’s brother got divorced and moved in with another divorced guy. He wrote Chapter Two (1977) after the death of his wife of 20 years and his remarriage to actress Marsha Mason. The play is also about a widower who feels guilty when he falls in love again.

He wrote: “If you can go through life without ever experiencing pain, you probably haven’t been born yet. And if you’ve gone through pain and think you know exactly why, you haven’t examined all the options.”


On this date in 1802the United States Military Academy opened at West Point, New York. A national officers’ training academy had been proposed as early as 1776 and had the strong support of Alexander Hamilton, but elite officer training was considered to be a European conceit and was rejected. Finally, in March 1802, Congress passed an act establishing a school for the Army Corps of Engineers, and President Jefferson officially opened West Point on July 4.

In the early years of the academy, there were few regulations and only two instructors, and cadets ranged in age from 10 to 37 years. It’s not surprising that many of this country’s great military leaders have passed through its doors, but the period between 1900 and 1915 produced Douglas MacArthur, Joseph Stilwell, Henry “Hap” Arnold, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley. The class of 1915 is known as “the class the stars fell on” because 36 percent of that year’s graduates eventually attained the rank of general, which is designated by one or more stars on the uniform.


Today is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author), born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He married Sophia Peabody in 1842, and soon after their wedding, Hawthorne wrote to his sister, “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.”

When he lost his job at the Salem Custom House, Sophia surprised him with money she’d put away out of her household allowance just so he could write a book. And he did: The Scarlet Letter (1850), about Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who bears a child out of wedlock and must wear a red letter “A” for adultery as her punishment.


Today is the day, in 1845, that Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin on Walden Pond (books by this author). Ralph Waldo Emerson owned some land near Concord, Massachusetts, and let Thoreau build a cabin there. He stayed for two years, two months, and two days, all the while keeping a journal. He published it as a book, which he called Walden; or Life in the Woods, in 1854. In it, he wrote, “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.” But he wasn’t exactly living apart from civilization, nor practicing pure self-reliance. Concord was only a mile and a half away, and he often walked into town. He worked part time as a surveyor, and his mother usually sent him back to the cabin with some home cooking.


On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published a small volume of poems, which he called Leaves of Grass.

Ten years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written an essay called “The Poet,” which called for a new style of poetry that reflected the spirit of the United States. Emerson wrote: “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials […] Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, […] our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.” And so Walt Whitman decided to become that genius. He wrote later: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman was a printer, and so once he had the 12 poems that would make up Leaves of Grass, he did a lot of the typesetting and design for the book himself, with a gold title and gold leaves and vines coming from it, and yellow endpapers. He published 795 copies, and the poems he included are some of his most famous: “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Faces,” “The Song of the Answerer,” and so on.

It got very mixed reviews; many critics shared the opinion of the anonymous reviewer in The National Quarterly Review, who wrote: “In no work of the same size have we ever read so much that is disgusting and repulsive.” But Emerson loved Leaves of Grass, and he sent Whitman a congratulatory letter telling him so, writing: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Being the fabulous self-promoter that he was, when Whitman published a second edition a year later, with 33 poems, he included a number of positive reviews of the book, many of them were written by Whitman himself, and he also included Emerson’s letter, — it might be the first blurb in history.

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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.

Radio
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Writing

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.

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.

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The old man repents of his materialism

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One more beautiful wasted day

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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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