The Writer’s Almanac for July 9, 2018

“The Only News I Know…” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I’ll tell it You—


It’s the birthday of blockbuster best-selling author Dean Koontz, (books by this author) born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He grew up in an impoverished, drunken, and violent home, and after he went away to college he converted to Catholicism, he said, because it helped him make sense of the chaos of his childhood and to appreciate mysteries in life.

He sold the first short story he ever wrote and then got 75 rejections before selling his next story. Now, he’s one of the most highly paid authors in the world. Koontz’s books have sold 400 million copies. Eleven hardcovers and more than a dozen paperbacks have been No. 1 New York Times best-sellers.

He works 10 or 11 hours a day, usually five days a week. He says that on good days, he winds up with five or six pages of finished work. But on bad days, he ends up with only a third of a page. Rather than writing a quick first draft and coming back to it later, he revises each page of the novel, however long it takes — 20 or 30 times is normal — before he feels good moving on to write the next page. He said, “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

He said: “I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. … The positive aspect of self-doubt — if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it — is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image.”

His novels are often set in Newport Beach, California. They often feature intelligent Labrador retrievers, bougainvillea flowers, unethical scientists, and references to T.S. Eliot and Alice in Wonderland.

Dean Koontz said, “Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.”


On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting full citizenship to African-Americans and due process to all citizens. It’s one of the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth, and Section I reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Of course, states still found ways around the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly a hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Jim Crow laws, Southern black codes, and the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the early and unforeseen complications of the amendment, which we are still grappling with today, is the extent to which corporations may be viewed as “persons” in the eyes of the law.


It’s the birthday of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (books by this author), born Ann Ward in London in 1764. She married a journalist, William Radcliffe, when she was 23, and he encouraged her to write. Write she did: Her first two books were published anonymously, but her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), made her famous; her fourth, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), made her the most popular writer in England and set the standard for the Gothic romance. She published one more novel in her lifetime, The Italian (1797). Her last two books made a good deal of money, and she may have quit writing novels because there was no financial need to do so. She did keep writing poetry, though, and published a volume in 1816. Neither the poems nor her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondville (1826), approached the success of her earlier works. She was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti, to say nothing of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who fancies herself in the middle of a Gothic romance herself. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft praised her for having “a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery [sic] touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey.” Radcliffe kept out of the public eye when possible, so she was frequently rumored to be dead, or mad; in reality, she was happily married and shy.

“Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794)


It’s the birthday of another English Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis (1775) (books by this author), born in London. Inspired by the work of Ann Radcliffe, he wrote his first book, The Monk (1796), when he was just 19 years old, and it was an overnight sensation. “I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published,” he wrote to his mother. The Monk was violent and erotic and full of horrors, and no one wanted to admit to reading it, but of course they all did, and it made him so famous that he was called “Monk” Lewis from then on. He followed The Monk with The Castle Spectre (1797), a musical drama with many of the same Gothic elements. His last book was published posthumously; it was Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834). In 1812, Lewis inherited a Jamaica plantation, and on a trip to the West Indies to check on the welfare of his slaves, he contracted yellow fever and died at sea in 1818.

“To a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.” (From The Monk, 1796)


It’s the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of several hundred books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, when she was 25, and from the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year.

Cartland left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.


Today is the birthday of Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933) to a large extended family of doctors, scientists, and religious Zionists. He became a neurologist and then turned case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives before his death in 2015.

In 2001, he wrote a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. In it, he talks about his childhood in England during World War II; his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs; and the scientists whom Sacks never knew, but who were, he says, “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.” Sacks and his older brother, Michael, were sent to a boarding school during the war, where they were routinely whipped and bullied. In 1943, at the age of 15, Michael began exhibiting symptoms of psychosis. “My brother saw ‘messages’ everywhere, felt his thoughts were being read or broadcast, had explosions of strange giggling, and felt he had been translocated to another ‘realm,'” Sacks wrote.

To cope with the trauma of the boarding school and his brother’s illness, Sacks sought refuge in the neat, orderly periodic table of elements. He sometimes dreamed of a career as a chemist, and though he went into medicine instead, he still liked to give elements as birthday gifts: “Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.'” For his own birthday, Sacks filled balloons with xenon, a gas that’s much denser than air. Instead of floating, the balloons all dropped to the floor.


It was on this date in 1958 that Alaska’s Lituya Bay was hit with the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. Lituya Bay, which lies on the Alaska panhandle, is a T-shaped fjord about seven miles long and two miles wide; two inlets form the crossbar of the ‘T.’ The Fairweather Fault Trench runs perpendicular to the fjord; it’s filled with water and glaciers. Because of its shape and its proximity to the fault line, Lituya Bay has seen at least four mega-tsunamis in the last 150 years.

At about nine p.m. on July 9, there was an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault, with the epicenter about 13 miles from the bay. The quake triggered a rockslide from one of the cliffs: Forty million cubic yards of rock and ice dropped from a height of 3,000 feet, and splashed down into the Gilbert Inlet, causing the mammoth wave. An eyewitness reported: “The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. […] Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. […] They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck.”

There were three boats in the bay at the time of the quake and rockslide. One boat was engulfed by the resulting mega-tsunami, but the other two survived. Because the area was uninhabited, the two men on the small boat were the wave’s only casualties.

The mega-tsunami reduced the forest to a collection of stumps and bedrock, hundreds of feet up the shore, as it swept out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spruce trees with trunks six feet wide were splintered. Later, scientists were able to calculate the height of the wave based on how far inland the damage extended; they estimate the mega-tsunami was 1,720 feet high. That’s almost 300 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

 


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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
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

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With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Old man in the grandstand, talking

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

Read More

My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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.

Read More

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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