The Writer’s Almanac for July 7, 2018

“No Loathsomeness in Love” by Robert Herrick. Public domain. (buy now)

What I fancy I approve,
No dislike there is in love:
Be my mistress short or tall,
And distorted therewithal:
Be she likewise one of those,
That an acre hath of nose:
Be her forehead and her eyes
Full of incongruities:
Be her cheeks so shallow too,
As to show her tongue wag through:
Be her lips ill hung, or set,
And her grinders black as jet;
Has she thin hair, hath she none,
She’s to me a paragon.


It’s the birthday of writer David McCullough (books by this author) — three-time presidential biographer, the winner of two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and one of the best-selling historians of all time — born in Pittsburgh (1933). As a kid, he learned about presidential politics early and often and in raised voices. He said: “My father was totally against FDR. My mother thought FDR could do no wrong. They were both quite hard of hearing … the decibel level at our dining room was high.”

He wanted to be a painter. But when he got to Yale in the 1950s, John O’Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were there on campus, and he decided to major in English instead. He worked in journalism for a decade. Then, in 1968, he published his first book, The Johnstown Flood, inspired first by seeing some photographs at the Library of Congress. The photos depicted the disaster — which happened close to his hometown — so differently than he’d learned about in school. He then wrote a book on the Panama Canal, which President Jimmy Carter used as a key reference book in negotiating the Panama Canal treaties.

Then McCullough wrote three biographies about U.S. presidents. The first, about Teddy Roosevelt — called Mornings on Horseback (1981) — won the National Book Award. The second, on Harry Truman, took him 10 years to research and write. Truman (1993) won the Pulitzer Prize.

The third presidential biography he wrote was about John Adams. There were no interviews or photographs around to help him with his research, but he read all of Adams’ diaries and the letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, more than a thousand of them.

McCullough wanted to try to get inside the head of John Adams, not just to read what Adams wrote, but also to read what Adams read for pleasure in the 18th century. He read classics in English, stuff by Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope. He said reading these books allowed him to “marinate” his head in John Adams’ thoughts and vocabulary.

When John Adams was published in 2001, it became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history. McCullough won another Pulitzer Prize for it.

David McCullough, who said: “You can make the argument that there’s no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past. They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don’t know how it’s going to come out. They weren’t just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand how they perceived reality.”

And, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”


Sliced bread was sold for the first time on this date in 1928. Up until that time, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting an eponymous invention, the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries. They scoffed, and told him that pre-sliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn’t work. Finally he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: “Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread.” Sales went through the roof. Rohwedder not only gave Americans the gift of convenience and perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he also provided the English language with the saying that expresses the ultimate in innovation: “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”


On this date in 1863the United States began its first military draft during the Civil War; the Confederacy had passed a draft law the year before. Both sides allowed conscripts to hire substitutes to fight in their place. The North also allowed anyone to buy an exemption for $300. Because that amounted to nearly a year’s wages for many working people, in practice it meant that only the wealthy could afford to buy their way out of service. When the first drawing of names began in New York on July 11, widespread riots broke out, causing $1,500,000 in damage.

In the end, the Civil War draft was poorly handled, and didn’t make much difference in enlistment since only about 2 percent of the military forces were draftees. The draft was discontinued until World War I.


Today is the birthday of composer Gustav Mahler, born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic (1860). He became famous throughout Europe as a conductor, but he was fanatical in his work habits, and expected his artists to be, as well. He once said, “All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish,” and that philosophy made him a difficult person to work for. There was always someone calling for his resignation.

The year 1907 was difficult for Mahler: He was forced to resign from the Vienna Opera; his three-year-old daughter, Maria, died; and he was diagnosed with fatal heart disease. Superstitious, he believed that he had had a premonition of these events when composing his Tragic Symphony, No. 6 (1906), which ends with three climactic hammer blows representing “the three blows of fate which fall on a hero, the last one felling him as a tree is felled.” When he composed his ninth symphony, he refused to call it “Symphony No. 9” because he believed that, like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, his ninth symphony would be his last. He called it A Symphony for Tenor, Baritone, and Orchestra instead, and he appeared to have fooled fate, because he went on to compose another symphony. This one he called Symphony No. 9 (1910); he joked that he was safe, since it was really his 10th symphony, but No. 9 proved to be his last symphony after all, and he died in 1911.


It’s the birthday of artist Marc Chagall, born in Vitebsk, Russia (1887). He was one of nine kids in a family of modest means; his father worked for a salt herring factory, and his mother ran a shop. He wanted to be an artist, and he moved to St. Petersburg, where he failed his first entrance exams but eventually was accepted to art school. It was in Paris, surrounded by other artists, that he really began to develop his style. Though he was homesick and could not speak French, he later said, “My art needed Paris like a tree needs water.” Chagall is known for bright and complex colors, and his fantastical images from Russian-Jewish folklore and his childhood: ghosts, livestock, weddings, fiddlers, scenes of his village Vitebsk, a couple floating in the sky, and fish.

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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.

Read More

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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