The Writer’s Almanac for July 6, 2018

“The Crocodile” by Lewis Carroll. Public domain. (buy now)

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!


On this day in 1535Sir Thomas More (books by this author) was executed in London. More was a lawyer, philosopher, humanist, and statesman, and since 1935, he’s also a Catholic saint. He is the author of Utopia (1516) and the unfinished History of King Richard III (1513-1518), which has been called the first masterpiece of English historiography and provided the source material for Shakespeare’s play Richard III (1591).

More attracted the attention of Henry VIII in 1515 when he successfully resolved a trade dispute with Flanders, and again when he helped quell a London uprising against foreigners in 1517. Henry appointed him to his Privy Council in 1518 and knighted him in 1521; one of More’s early services to the king was to assist him in writing his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a rebuttal of Martin Luther. Henry named him Speaker of the House of Commons, where More advocated free speech in Parliament. Even though he was not in favor of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he still remained the king’s trusted advisor, confidant, and friend; he succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529, when Wolsey fell from favor.

He was a devout Catholic who had at one time considered becoming a monk, and he grew uncomfortable with Henry’s increasing opposition to the pope. When More resigned in 1532, citing ill health, it was probably due as much or more to his unease over the split with Rome. He refused to attend the coronation of the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and though he acknowledged that she was the rightful queen, he refused to take an oath that named Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England. He was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London on April 17, 1534. He wasn’t tried until more than a year later, but imprisonment suited his ascetic tastes; he said to his daughter Margaret that he would have chosen “as strait a room, and straiter too,” had he been given a choice. He was tried on July 1, 1535, and the judges — among them Anne Boleyn’s brother, father, and uncle — unanimously found him guilty. Traitors were customarily hanged, drawn, and quartered, and that was his sentence, but Henry commuted it to beheading. More spent the five days before his execution writing a prayer and several letters of farewell, and when he mounted Tower Hill to the scaffold, he told his escort, “See me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” His last words were, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

More is the subject of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960). The play’s title comes from something that Robert Whittington, an English grammarian and contemporary of More’s, wrote about him in 1520: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of a sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”


On this date in 1785, the dollar was chosen as the monetary unit of the United States. The word “dollar” actually predates this event by more than 250 years; it’s an Anglicized form of “thaler” [TAH-ler], a silver coin that was first minted in Bohemia in 1519. “Dollar” came to be used as a sort of generic term for any large silver coin, like the Spanish eight-real piece, also known as “pieces of eight.” There was a shortage of British currency in the American colonies, and Spanish dollars were widely circulated in their place — as were Indian wampum and certificates for tobacco held in Virginia warehouses. During the Revolutionary War, colonists printed their own paper bills, called Continentals, in a variety of denominations; some were in British pounds, others were in dollars. When we won our independence, we rejected the British units in favor of the dollar.


Louis Pasteur successfully tested his rabies vaccine on this day in 1885. Pasteur had begun work on a vaccine in 1882, using a weakened form of the virus taken from the spinal cords of infected animals. The research was time-consuming, because it took several weeks for the virus to reach his test animals’ brains after they were infected, but Pasteur soon realized that people didn’t need to have the vaccine on board before they were bitten, as with other diseases. The delay between the rabid animal’s bite and the outbreak of the disease meant the vaccine could be given only when needed, and it would have plenty of time to work.

In 1885, a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Pasteur, and though Pasteur didn’t feel his vaccine was sufficiently tested yet, he knew the boy would certainly die otherwise, so he took a chance. It was a tense few weeks waiting to see if Meister would come down with the disease, but the boy recovered, and three months later was pronounced in good health. Pasteur’s fame spread quickly, and the era of preventative medicine had begun.


Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a passionate letter to an unknown woman on this date in 1812. Beethoven had gone to the Czech resort town of Teplitz, which his physician had recommended for his health. And over the course of two days, he wrote a letter, in three installments, to a mysterious woman who has come to be known as “the Immortal Beloved.” He begins the letter: “July 6, in the morning. My angel, my all, my very self […] My heart is full of so many things to say to you […] there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all — Cheer up — remain my true, my only treasure, my all as I am yours. The gods must send us the rest, what for us must and shall be —Your faithful LUDWIG.”

For 200 years, scholars have been arguing over the identity of the Immortal Beloved. One candidate is Bettina von Arnim, a writer, singer, composer, and a friend of the poet Goethe. There is Josephine von Brunswick: Beethoven was very much in love with her at one point, and wrote her several passionate letters. And there is Antonie Brentano, who was unhappily married and met Beethoven in Vienna — she became ill there, and Beethoven played piano for her while she was sick. He wrote the letters shortly before she moved away, and he never saw her again.


It was on this date in 1957 that Paul McCartney and John Lennon met for the first time, at the Woolton Village Fete in Liverpool, England. John Lennon was almost 17, and Paul McCartney had just turned 15. Lennon had formed a band called the Quarrymen, although he had trouble remembering lyrics and didn’t know proper guitar chords, because he’d learned how to play on a banjo. Paul met the band when they played a gig at St. Peter’s Church. He told them that he could tune and play a guitar, and since no one in the band could tune their own guitars, they were impressed. Paul then knocked the socks off Lennon when he performed “Twenty Flight Rock,” by Eddie Cochran, and didn’t forget a single word of the lyrics. Lennon asked McCartney to join the band a week later.


The first official convention of the Republican Party was held in Jackson, Michigan, on this date in 1854. Nearly 10,000 people turned out for a meeting in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had provided for the expansion of slavery into the new western territories. It was a hot day, and none of the halls could accommodate such a large crowd, so the meeting was held outside, in an oak grove on the outskirts of town. The party’s name was formally adopted at this meeting, and was a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. New York magazine magnate Horace Greeley wrote in an editorial: “We think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion […] of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”

The newly minted Republicans also settled on a slate of candidates for the upcoming Congressional elections. The party did well in its first election, winning almost 50 races, and by the following year, the party had a majority in the House.


On this date in 1892, striking steelworkers clashed with Pinkerton security agents in Homestead, Pennsylvania, resulting in 12 deaths. The Homestead Strike had begun on June 30.

The steel mill’s general manager was Henry Clay Frick had locked workers out of the plant after he cut wages and told the union he would no longer negotiate with them. The union responded by erecting 24-hour picket lines and set up a lookout for any suspected replacement workers.

Frick’s plan was to reopen the plant on July 6 with replacements from as far away as Boston. He brought in 300 agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency the night before, armed them with Winchester rifles, and towed them up the Monongahela River to enter the plant from the water’s edge. But the union was ready for them and the barges were met by union boats, and by workers on the shore. Shots were fired, and the plant’s whistle sounded, bringing townspeople to the mill by the thousands.

Fighting went on until 5 o’clock p.m., when the Pinkertons surrendered. They were led out through a gauntlet of townspeople, who threw sand and rocks, jeered, spit at, and beat them. The strike itself didn’t end until the following November; and during the intervening months, the state militia was called in, and the strike’s leaders were charged with murder and treason, although later acquitted. In the end, the striking workers ran out of money and had to return to the plant.

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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
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving! We are thankful for Marjane Satrapi, André Gide, George Eliot, and all the other writers born this day.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of Voltaire (1694), who wrote, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

Live from the Town Hall Theater in New York, it’s The McCoury boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and everybody’s favorite former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which was only ten sentences long and which lasted about 2 minutes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

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It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hugely popular online television series.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

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It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne, and then reigned for 45 years.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which was one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Marianne Moore, who once said, “I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

Live from the State Theater with Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, The Brothers Frantzich, and The Royal Academy of Radio Acting: Tim Russell & Sue Scott.

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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

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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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.

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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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