The Writer’s Almanac for June 9, 2018

“Oh the gallant Fishers life,…” by Izaak Walton, from The Compleat Angler. Public domain. (buy now)

Oh the gallant Fishers life,
It is the best of any,
‘Tis full of pleasure, void of strife,
And ’tis belov’d of many:
Other joyes
are but toyes,
only this
lawful is,
for our skill
breeds no ill,
but content and pleasure.

In a morning up we rise,
Ere Aurora’s peeping,
Drink a cup to wash our eyes,
Leave the sluggard sleeping:
Then we go
to and fro,
with our knacks
at our backs,
to such streams
as the Thames,
if we have the leasure.

When we pleas to walk abroad
For our recreation,
In the fields is our abode,
Full of delectation.
Where in a brook
with a book,
or a Lake,
fish we take;
there we sit,
for a bit,
till we fish intangle.


 It’s the birthday of novelist Charles Webb, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California, 1939. He wrote a book that became one of the iconic films of the 1960s: The Graduate (1963; film version, 1967). Not many people realize that The Graduate is based on a book, but in fact the dialogue in the film comes almost entirely from the novel.

Webb grew up in Pasadena, California, and he turned down an inheritance from his father who was a wealthy doctor. He wrote The Graduate in the poolside bar of the Pasadena Huntington Hotel, and he based it loosely on his own experience: He was attracted to the wife of a friend of his parents, and he decided “it might be better to write about it than to do it.” When The Graduate was published, he was 24 years old.


It’s the birthday of Cole Porter, born in Peru, Indiana (1891). He was a composer and lyricist, and he wrote a string of hit songs: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Night and Day,” “You’re the Top,” “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin,” and “Let’s Misbehave.” All of these songs were written within a 10-year period: between his first popular Broadway musical, Paris (1928)—his first musicals had been complete flops—and a terrible riding accident in 1937. Porter was at a party at the New York home of the Countess Edith di Zoppola when his horse rolled and crushed his legs. He claimed that he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt and that while someone ran for help he finished up the lyrics to “You Never Know.” But he was in fact seriously injured—the doctors insisted that his right leg be amputated, maybe his left as well. Porter refused. He preferred to be in intense pain than be missing a leg.

He lived with the pain for more than 20 years, and he continued to write songs, but never at the same rate of success as he had before his accident. In 1958, after 34 operations on his leg, he finally agreed to have it amputated. The playwright Noel Coward went to visit Porter in the hospital, and he said: “He has at last had his leg amputated and the lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face. He is a bit fretful about having to manage his new leg but he will get over that. I think if I had had to endure all those years of agony I would have had the damned thing off at the beginning, but it is a cruel decision to have to make and involves much sex vanity and many fears of being repellent.

However, it is now done at last and I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.” But Porter never recovered. He told friends, “I am only half a man now,” and never wrote another song. He died in 1964 at the age of 73.

He wrote “I Hate Men” for his musical Kiss Me Kate (1948):

I hate men.
I can’t abide them even now and then.
Then ever marry one of them, I’d rest a maiden rather,
For husbands are a boring lot that only give you bother.
Of course, I’m awful glad that mother had to marry father,
Still, I hate men.

Of all the types of men I’ve met in our democracy,
I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy.
He may have hair upon his chest, but sister, so has Lassie!
Oh, I hate men!

I hate men.
They should be kept like piggies in a pen.
You may be wooed by Jack the Tar, so charming and so chipper,
But if you’re wooed by Jack the Tar, be sure that you’re the skipper.
For Jack the Tar can go too far. Remember Jack the Ripper?
Oh, I hate men!

If thou shouldst wed a business man, be wary, oh be wary:
He’ll tell you he’s detained in town on business necessary.
The business is the business that he gives his secretary!
Oh, I hate men!

I hate men.
Though roosters they, I will not play the hen.
If you espouse an older man through girlish optimism,
He’ll always stay at home and night and make no criticism.
Though you may call it love, the doctors call it rheumatism.
Oh, I hate men!

Of all I’ve read, alone in bed, from A to Zed about ’em,
Since love is blind, then from the mind, all womankind should rout ’em.
But, ladies, you must answer too, what would we do without ’em?
Still, I HATE men!


It was on this day in 1860 that the first true dime novel was published. It was called Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens, and it was the first of 321 novels published by Beadle & Adams in their series Beadle’s Dime Novels. The early dime novels were wrapped in a salmon-colored cover, and after the first 28, Beadle & Adams started adding illustrations. Before long, the phrase “dime novel” was used to mean any cheap, melodramatic pulp fiction, some of which actually cost 15 cents, not 10.

Many authors of dime novels wrote nothing else, but there were some established writers who tried their hands at writing pulp fiction. Theodore Dreiser may have helped write the Diamond Dick dime novels. Louisa May Alcott published more than 30 dime novels under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. She wrote to her friend Alfred Whitman: “I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood and thunder tale as they are easy to ‘compoze’ and are better paid than moral and elaborate works of Shakespeare, so don’t be shocked if I send you a paper containing a picture of Indians, pirates, wolves, bears and distressed damsels in a grand tableau over a title like this: ‘The Maniac Bride’ or ‘The Bath of blood, A Thrilling Tale of Passion.'” Upton Sinclair supported himself by writing what he called “half-dime novels.” He said, “I discovered early in life that I possessed a happy knack—that of composing (and marketing) boys’ adventure stories. For a considerable period I used to talk these off to a stenographer, grinding them out at the rate of six or eight thousand words a day; in which manner I took care of myself from the age of 16. I have frequently walked all the way around Central Park, in New York, ‘thinking story.’ […] In those days I wrote under the name of ‘Ensign Clark Fitch’ and ‘Lieutenant Frederick Garrison’; and my productions appeared in brilliant red, blue, green and yellow colored priodicals, known as the ‘True Blue Library’ and the ‘Starry Flag Weekly.’ […] At the age of 20, I received a conviction of inspiration, and went away into the woods to write the ‘great American novel.’ […] I soon made the appalling discovery that my novel was not wanted, that my inspiration was not believed in, and that I was out of touch with the entire civilized world—an outcast and a tramp. I could no longer write entertaining dime novels—the effort to do so simply tore me to pieces, and the publishers of the dime novels soon found out that something was wrong, and passed me by.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist and peace activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner (books by this author), born in Prague (1843). Her father died before she was born, and she was raised by her mother. The family had once been wealthy, so she moved in upper-class circles, but they lived beyond their means. Still, Bertha received the best education, was fluent in several languages, and traveled all over Europe. When she was 30 she realized that it was time to stop relying on her mother, who was gambling away the rest of the family’s money. She took a job as a governess to a wealthy family, the von Suttners.

Unfortunately for her job security, Bertha fell in love with the son, Arthur von Suttner. Arthur’s mother disapproved of the romance between her son and Bertha, and was delighted when she found an advertisement in a Viennese newspaper looking for someone with exactly Bertha’s qualifications. She showed Bertha the ad and hinted that she should leave. The ad said: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.” Bertha was 33, not exactly elderly, but she applied anyway and was offered the job. It turned out that her employer wasn’t elderly either—he was 43, and he was the industrialist Alfred Nobel.

Bertha and Nobel hit it off, and she was less of a secretary to Nobel than a friend. They spent their days walking around Paris and talking about ideas—art, literature, international politics. But after about a week, she got a telegram from Arthur saying that he couldn’t live without her. So she went back to him.

His family was no less enthusiastic about their marriage than before, and the two young people had to fend for themselves. They spent nine years living in the Caucasus, where they taught music lessons and read everything they could get their hands on. They also wrote—during those years, Bertha von Suttner published four novels, a memoir, and Inventarium einer Seele, or Inventory of a Soul (1883), in which she advocated for international peace.

The von Suttners made enough money from their books to travel to Paris, and there Bertha rekindled her connection with Alfred Nobel. She was quickly connected to a network of peace activists, and decided that the movement was her true calling. So she set out to write a novel that would advance the cause of the peace movement, and that was Die Waffen nieder, or Lay Down Your Arms (1889). It was wildly popular, and by 1905 it was going into its 37th edition and had been translated into nearly all of the European languages.

Von Suttner wrote Nobel letter after letter urging him to get more involved in the peace movement. He donated significant amounts of money to her causes, but he was skeptical—concerned that despite all the good will of the anti-war movement, its participants hadn’t formulated a realistic alternative. His ambivalence also came from his own life—he had made his fortune as the inventor of dynamite, and later through the development of weapons. He wrote to Bertha: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Shortly before his death, Nobel informed Bertha that in his will, he was leaving his money for the creation of what is now the Nobel Peace Prize. She was thrilled—she responded: “Whether I am around then or not does not matter; what we have given, you and I, is going to live on.”

Nobel died in 1896, and the first Nobel Prize was given in 1901. In 1905, Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize that she had helped inspire.

She said, “Perhaps the universal sisterhood is necessary before the universal brotherhood is possible.”

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"Alexandria, 1953" by Gregory Djanikian, from Falling Deeply into America. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.

Even on the back streets
You could feel it on your skin,
You could smell it in the aroma
Of dark coffee, spiced meat.

You looked at the sea and you heard
The wail of an Arab woman singing or praying.

If, as I can now, you could point
To the North Atlantic, swollen
And dark as it often is, you might say,
"Here lies Wrath," or "Truly God is great."
You could season a Puritan soul by it.

But you could fall into the Mediterranean
As though you were falling into a blue dream,
Gauzy, half unreal for its loveliness.
It was deceptively calm and luxurious.
At Stanley Bay, you could float
On your back and watch the evening sun
Color the city a faint rose.
You could drown, it was said,
Almost without knowing it.


It was on this day in 1940 that the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (books by this author) was mortally wounded when his assassin lodged an ice pick into his skull in Mexico City.

Stalin had exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929, and he went to Turkey, then France, then Norway, all the while writing books, including a three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1932). Mexico offered him asylum, in part thanks to the support of painter Diego Rivera. While he was in Mexico City, Trotsky had an affair with Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, and he continued to write.

The assassin made it into Trotsky's heavily guarded home and asked Trotsky to read something he had written. Then he pulled the ice pick out of his coat and attacked Trotsky, who died the next day.

Trotsky's murder is a central event in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna (2009), and in David Ives' one-act play Variations on the Death of Trotsky (1993).


On this date in 1975, NASA launched the Viking 1 mission to Mars. Its sister, Viking 2, was launched about three weeks later. Each Viking mission consisted of a matching lander and orbiter, which separated upon reaching Mars' orbit. The Viking project made history as the first United States mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of the red planet. Viking gathered samples, took pictures, and conducted experiments designed to look for signs of life; while the experiments yielded some interesting results, there was no definitive proof of life as we know it. Scientists believe that Mars may be "self-cleaning": Solar radiation and the extremely dry and chemically inhospitable soil would make it very difficult for organisms to survive.

Viking 1 was designed to carry out its mission for 90 days, but it actually continued sending data far beyond that period. Orbiter 1 operated for four years; Lander 1, for more than seven years.


On this date in 1977NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft. They timed the launch to coincide with a rare planetary alignment that allowed the craft to make use of each planet's gravity to boost it on its way. The original purpose of the mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn; it's since passed Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and is now considered an "interstellar mission" because it still has enough velocity to leave the solar system. It's currently flying through the heliopause: the area where the solar wind is opposed by hydrogen and helium gases from interstellar space, forming a kind of bubble around the solar system. Scientists believe it will be able to continue sending back signals until at least 2025.

Voyager 1 and 2 also carry golden records, with pictographic instructions on how to play them. The records contain sounds, images, and welcome messages from Earth, as well as a map to our location. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that decided what should go on the record. He said: "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet." President Jimmy Carter included his own message on the record: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."


It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons with the famous line: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The Battle of Britain was raging, and he was referring to the small group of the Royal Air Force who had successfully held off the much larger Luftwaffe, the German air force.

Churchill wrote all of his own speeches, and he was a gifted orator, but people thought that his vocabulary and style of speaking were old-fashioned. But after the beginning of World War II, Churchill's dramatic rhetoric fit the mood of the country.

His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, served in the Parliament and was a talented debater, famous for making spontaneous speeches. Winston, on the other hand, labored over every speech. He brainstormed, researched, planned out the speech in his head, then dictated it aloud to his secretary. From there, he revised it several times and typed it up in what he called "psalm form." His speeches looked like blank verse poetry on the page, so that the rhythm and pauses were laid out just how he wanted them. Before Churchill delivered a speech, he would practice over and over, sometimes in the bathtub.


It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh (books by this author), born in San Diego, California (1948). She said: "I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it's harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually." She went to Harvard when she was 16 and sold her first poem to The New Yorker a year later. Her books of poetry include Dangers (1977), A World of Difference (1981), Hinge & Sign (1994), and Upgraded to Serious (2009).


It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author), born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called "weird fiction." He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: "I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams."

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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?

Manhattan is a long thin island, so we don’t need a car here, and among pedestrians, one is surrounded by good manners. Biking is dangerous. A young woman from Australia was killed Friday when she swerved on her bike to avoid an Uber driver pulling out into the bike lane and she was struck down by a truck. Her name was Maddie Lyden, she was 23, she had just graduated from college and given herself a trip to America, her dream trip. She died a mile from my apartment and I didn’t know about it until Monday.

When I moved into this apartment back in 1990, I was struck by three deaths that happened in my vicinity. A former Rockette was killed by a demented man as she walked her dog early one morning on 69th Street and Central Park. A young woman working in a Gap store on 57th was killed by a robber as she opened the door for business. A young man from Provo, Utah, was killed on the 7th Avenue B-train station platform, defending his mother against a gang of muggers. I think of the three of them whenever I pass the places where they died.

We’re interconnected here.  I sit in a café and the woman across the room tapping on her laptop may be writing a novel that will be a best-seller and here I am, trying to remember Frayne Anderson, the English teacher in Anoka, Minnesota, who gave me a copy of The New Yorker when I was 14.  A certain decorum is observed. I don’t ask her what she’s writing, she doesn’t ask me, but we’re connected. I once boarded a downtown B train and sat down and noticed that the black lady across the aisle was reading a book of mine. She looked like a lawyer. She didn’t laugh but she kept reading. It was hard watching her for fear she’d make a face and slam the book shut and I got off the train. It was 7th Avenue.

Writing a best-selling novel was once my fairy tale, but I’m over it now. I’m engrossed in the memoir. It’s my obligation, seeing as I grew up in America after World War II, when children roamed the countryside freely, no cellphones on them for their parents to ascertain their whereabouts, and we worked hoeing corn for truck farmers and learned about drudgery and if we wanted to go to town, we hitchhiked and sometimes got a ride from a drunk who was speeding and cursing his wife. I’m not nostalgic about this. I’m grateful to have survived more or less intact.

I think of the novelists I know and if I were to turn my back on the factual and think fiction I could make myself into a tragic hero, misunderstood by old friends and family, but the truth is, my life is one piece of good luck after another, the most recent being my wife of 23 years who is walking alongside me down Columbus toward Lincoln Center, setting a brisk pace. A good marriage is worth more than a best-selling novel, take my word for it, I’ve been there.

“My Fair Lady” is playing at the Center. We saw it and she said she’d like to see it again. “Fine,” I say, as I’m thinking about Maddie Lyden who was struck down on her bike one block east of here, at 66th and Central Park West. The Uber driver was careless, the truck driver was ticketed for DUI, Maddie was riding a rental bike and didn’t get a helmet.

It’s hard to put all this in one rational column, the tragedy of Maddie, the summer nights, the reader on the train, my good wife, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” but now I’ve reached 750 words, my limit, and must get back to work on the memoir. That’s life in New York. Take care. Look both ways always.

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.

I felt good on Sunday because I’d been to church and a middle-aged lesbian couple walked in and sat in the pew in front of me, and I felt warmly toward them, being the high-class liberal that I am, and then they turned for the Exchange of Peace and one of them was a man. A man with a deep voice. He said, “The peace of the Lord.” So I had been extending my tolerance toward Dick and Jane, not Vicky and Jane. Interesting.

I also felt good because on Saturday I stopped to look at a yard sale and there, among all the trashy stuff, the unwanted gifts, the novelty socks, the shirt that said, “Help Me, I’ve Fallen And I Cannot Reach My Beer,” the unused exercise bike, the unread books, was a book I wrote, mint condition, unread, list price of 20 bucks, now on sale for 35 cents. I bought it, of course. An arthur doesn’t want to see a book of his go so cheaply.

It was my collection of sonnets, very intense and dense and sensitive, which had sold about 46 copies when it came out and which I wrote to shine up my reputation. I’d done a radio show for decades on which we did comedy routines that involved the expulsion of stomach gas. Juvenile humor, and yet it convulsed audiences left and right, sketches in which an actor bent over and the sound effects man squeezed the whoopee cushion and the audience fell apart, many of them expelling gases in the process.

As a man ventures into his 70s, he thinks about his legacy, and so I wrote sonnets, just as Shakespeare did, about mortality and the power of love to overcome shame and doubt, and here was my work sitting in a yard with some beer mugs and figurines, on sale for 35 cents. It was a shock.

Of course I’ve been disillusioned before — I’ve voted for Democrats, I know what disappointment is — but I took my sonnets and resolved to put aside regret, of which I have enough already. In church, we ask forgiveness for what we have done and what we have left undone and the Left Undone list is very long, but you leave it with the Lord and are forgiven and shake hands with the lesbian couple except now they aren’t. What you thought was diversity turns out to be just folks.

I am now looking for someone to give the sonnets to. It’s my birthday August 7 and my love and I are taking two young couples to dinner. This is to preclude a conversation about how lovely life was before all these passwords and people texting on their phones and posting on Facebook instead of conversing with actual people. I will let the couples draw straws for the sonnets. Instead of stewing about regrets, we can talk about the power of love. It is an old man’s privilege to natter and I intend to. I will tell them that a good marriage is worth the trouble. Nothing sweeter. Remember that not all feelings need to be aired. When in doubt, smile and say, “I love you.” And look for opportunities to amaze the other. If necessary, fry up your own words with melted cheese and eat them. It can’t hurt. This goes for gay couples, straight, curly, LSMFT, ILGWU, NFL, the whole spectrum.

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November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

Garrison Keillor performs with vocalist Lynne Peterson and longtime A Prairie Home Companion pianist & band leader Richard Dworsky. One show at 5:00 p.m. and another at 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre. Doors 5:30 p.m.; show 7:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

It was on this day in 1940 that an assassin mortally wounded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky using an ice pick while Trotsky was staying in Mexico City.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

Today is the birthday of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek series. Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

On this day in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published in the United States by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The book was a sensation, selling more than 100,000 copies in one week–the first novel to do so since Gone with the Wind.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

On this date in 1982, the first compact discs for commercial release were manufactured in Germany. The first album sold in disc form on this date? ABBA’s 1981 album The Visitors.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

“The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.”
–Charles Bukowski, born on this day in 1920

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of Stieg Larsson, a muckracking journalist and anti-fascist who originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. His psychological thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in 2005 (along with the other two novels he’d finished in the Millenium series) and went on to become a global phenomenon.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

It was on this day in 1935 that the original Social Security Act was passed. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it was first intended to help keep senior citizens out of poverty, which it still does.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock, who proposed that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

Today is the birthday of the person who wrote the lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!” That’s Katharine Lee Bates, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1859.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, born Sunnyvale, CA in 1950. The Apple 1 computer came about when Wozniak got the idea to pair a typewriter keyboard with a television. Wozniak & Steve Jobs hoped to sell at least 50 of them. Seven years later, their company had a stock value of $985 million.

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Writing

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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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.”

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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.

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Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

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What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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