The Writer’s Almanac for June 5, 2018

Excerpt from “The Tempest” Act 4, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


It’s the birthday of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898) (books by this author), born in Fuente Vaqueros, in the province of Granada. His father was a successful farmer, and his mother was a gifted pianist. García Lorca published his first book, Impressions and Landscapes, in 1918, and then moved to Madrid the following year, enrolling in the Residencia de Estudiantes (Student Residence), a cultural center that provided a stimulating, dynamic, and progressive environment for university students. It was at the Residencia that García Lorca met and befriended a group of artists, including composer Manuel de Falla, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and painter Salvador Dali; he also became interested in Surrealism and the avant-garde. During the 1920s, he wrote and staged a couple of plays; the first (The Butterfly’s Evil Spell [1920]) was laughed off the stage, and the second (Mariana Pineda [1927]) received mixed reviews. He also collected folk songs and wrote a great deal of poetry; much of it — like Poem of the Deep Song, published in 1931, and Gypsy Ballads, 1928 — inspired by Andalusian or gypsy culture and music.

He also had an intense relationship with Salvador Dali from 1925 to 1928, which forced him to acknowledge his homosexuality. He became a national celebrity upon the publication of Gypsy Ballads, and was distressed at the loss of privacy this caused; he chafed at the conflict between his public persona and his private self. He grew depressed, and a falling out with Dali and the end of another love affair with a sculptor only made things worse. In 1929, his family arranged for him to take an extended trip to the United States. It was in New York that he began to break out of his pigeonhole as a “gypsy poet.” He wrote A Poet in New York (published posthumously in 1942), a collection that was critical of capitalism and obsessed with urban decay and social injustice.

He turned back to drama when he returned to Spain in 1930. He wrote and premiered the first two plays in his Rural Trilogy: Blood Wedding (1933) and Yerma (1934), and completed the first draft of the third, The House of Bernarda Alba, tackling controversial themes like homoeroticism and the Spanish class system. He also continued to write poetry, including “Lament for a Bullfighter” (1934), about the death of one of his friends:

At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready preserved
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and the Nationalists didn’t look favorably on his work or his liberal views. They dragged him from his home on August 16 and imprisoned him without a trial; two or three days later, they drove him to a hill outside of town and shot him. His body was never found.


It’s the birthday of finance advisor Suze Orman, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1951). Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where her dad owned a take-out chicken restaurant.

She had a speech impediment, wasn’t very good at speaking or at reading, and didn’t do too well in school, but she was good at math. She went to college at the University of Illinois, but her career counselor told her that she wasn’t smart enough to be a surgeon, so she looked around and heard that the easiest major was social work, and she majored in that. After four years, just one class short of graduating, she left and headed to Berkeley, where she worked cutting trees and living in her van, and then as a waitress. She waited tables at the Buttercup Café for seven years, and by the time she was 30, she was still making just $400 a month.

She wanted to open her own restaurant, and a group of regulars decided to give her an interest-free loan of $50,000. One of them suggested that she put the money in a money market account at Merrill Lynch. She didn’t know any thing about finances, so she just handed her money over to a broker and let him do whatever he wanted, but he invested it badly and in just three months all of the $50,000 was gone.

So she went to Merrill Lynch and asked for a job, and somehow, she was hired, the only woman in the office. When she realized that her broker had acted illegally the way he had invested her money, she sued Merrill Lynch, not realizing that by suing them, she was also legally obligating them to keep her as an employee for the duration of the case. By the time the case had gone through, she was one of the most successful brokers there, and they didn’t feel like they should fire her. So she ended up with lots of money and a solid understanding of the financial world.

She decided to share her advice and story with other normal people like her. Mostly she advises people to follow a few simple rules — to make dependable solid investments, to plan for the future, and to think through their emotional or psychological relationship to money.

She says, “People first, then money, then things.”


Just after midnight on this day in 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant. Kennedy had just won California’s Democratic presidential primary, and he was exiting through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy, was shaking his hand when Sirhan began firing. Several of the men with him tackled Sirhan, including writer George Plimpton, Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson, and football star Rosey Grier. Romero knelt by Kennedy, and put a rosary in his hand.

His brother Edward “Ted” Kennedy delivered the eulogy, his third for a dead brother:
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'”


Today is the birthday of the novelist Rick Riordan (books by this author), born in San Antonio, Texas (1964). He’s the child of teachers, and was a teacher himself. He became interested in Greek and Norse mythology as a teen, and he told his sons Greek myths as bedtime stories. When he ran out of myths, he began to make up his own. His first idea was the story of a young demigod in contemporary America, a half-human son of the god Poseidon. The boy, who has ADHD and dyslexia, learns his true parentage, and goes on a quest to retrieve Zeus’s lightning bolt. Riordan’s son Haley told him he should write it as a book, and that became The Lightning Thief (2005), the first book in the popular five-volume “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series for young adults.


Today is the birthday of broadcast journalist Bill Moyers (books by this author), born in Hugo, Oklahoma (1934). He’s hosted several public affairs programs, and has become known for his in-depth, thoughtful interview series, including The Power of Myth, A World of Ideas, and Moyers and Company. He’s often an outspoken critic of the news media and advocate for media reform.


Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (books by this author) began its serial run in abolitionist newspaper, the National Era on this date in 1851. It ran in weekly installments for 10 months. It generated some interest among opponents to slavery, but it didn’t reach a larger audience until it was republished as a book in 1852.

Many critics dismissed the novel as sentimental, and several characters gave rise to persistent stereotypes of African-Americans. Even so, it attracted thousands of Northerners to the abolitionist cause. The book sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year in print.

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

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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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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