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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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.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

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.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
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Writing

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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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.

Read More

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.”

Read More

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.

Read More

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