The Writer’s Almanac for November 1, 2018

Flowers

by Linda Pastan

 

The text for today’s poem is not available. The collection in which it appears, Traveling Light, may be purchased here.


It was on this day, seven years apart, that two of Shakespeare’s plays (books by this author)were performed for the first time: Othello in 1604, and The Tempest in 1611.

Othello was performed for the court of James I. In the “Accounts of the Revels at Court” from 1604, there is an entry that says: “By the Kings Maiesties plaiers. Hallamas Day being the first of Nouembar, A play in the Banketinge house at Whithall called The Moor of Venis. Shaxberd.” Othello, the Moor of Venice was performed several more times before Shakespeare died in 1616, but it wasn’t printed until 1622.

Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend and the leading man in his acting company, probably played the first Othello, just as he played Hamlet, King Lear, and Richard III. He definitely played him in later productions, and a poet described Othello as Burbage’s “chiefest part, / Wherein beyond the rest he moved the heart.” King James was a scholar himself and a serious patron of the arts — he gave his name to the King James Bible, and he and his wife particularly enjoyed theater, and so many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed before the royal court. Macbeth was written specifically for James, who was fascinated by witchcraft. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who preceded James, an average of six or seven plays were performed each year in the royal court. The court of James I averaged more than 20 each year.

And it was on this day in 1611 that The Tempest was first performed, once again for the court of James I. The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a powerful magician and the former Duke of Milan who is exiled to a remote island with his daughter. He conjures up a storm to shipwreck his brother, who stole his throne. Prospero is one of the only Shakespeare protagonists who is not based on a known historical figure. But in 2008, a retired policeman-turned-amateur historian from Scotland named Brian Moffatt self-published a book called Death Resurrection and the Sword. In it, he explained his theory that Prospero is based on the real-life Francis Stewart, the Fifth Earl of Bothwell. He was the king’s cousin, but he turned against James. He and his wife were said to be practitioners of witchcraft and magic, and Bothwell apparently tried to cast a spell to conjure up a storm and shipwreck his cousin, James, as he returned from Denmark with his new bride. The spell didn’t work, and Bothwell was tried and acquitted, but later exiled, and he ended up dying in Naples.

Because The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last major play, a lot of people think that Prospero is meant to stand for Shakespeare himself, and that his last speech, when he gives up his powers, is Shakespeare’s own comment about the end of his career: “To the dread rattling thunder / Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak / With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory / Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up / The pine and cedar: graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth / By my so potent art. But this rough magic / I here abjure; and, when I have required / Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — / To work mine end upon their senses, that / This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.”

The theater scene at James’ court must have gone downhill after Shakespeare’s day, because a few years later, in 1614, a courtier wrote to his friend complaining of the constant plays: “We have Plays at Court every night, — wherein they shew great patience, being for the most part such poor stuff that, instead of delight, they send the auditory away with discontent. Indeed our Poets’ brains and inventions are grown very dry, insomuch that of five new Plays there is not one that pleases, and therefore they are driven to furbish over their old; which stand them in best stead and bring them most profit.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Susanna Clarke, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1959). She worked in publishing, then went to Italy to teach English, and while she was there she said: “I had a kind of waking dream about a man in 18th-century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background — he’d been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong.”

She decided to write a novel about this character, even though, as she said, “I really like magicians, but there was no reason to suppose anyone else would.” She took a five-day science-fiction and fantasy class, and one of her teachers was so impressed with a short story she wrote in the workshop that he sent it to his friend Neil Gaiman, who showed it to an editor, who called her up and offered to publish it. So she started publishing short fiction, but her novel was slow-going. She was working as a cookbook editor for Simon & Schuster, and for years she got up and started writing at 5:30 in the morning, wrote for about three hours, and then went off to her day job. The novel took her 10 years to write, but finally she was done with the manuscript, called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s the story of two wizards, one a handsome and charismatic young man named Jonathan Strange and one an uptight scholar named Gilbert Norrell. It isn’t a book of high fantasy as much as a comedy of manners and a history of early 19th-century England during the Napoleonic Wars — with a lot of magic thrown in. When it was finally published, Susanna Clarke got as many comparisons to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as to any fantasy writer.

But publishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell wasn’t easy — it was 800 pages long, and the first few publishers turned it down, saying that it would be impossible to market such a book. But then Bloomsbury picked it up and was so sure it would be a success that they offered her a huge advance. Sure enough, the book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for about three months.


The Arecibo Observatory opened on this date in 1963. At a diameter of a thousand feet, it’s the largest single-aperture telescope ever built. It’s also got the largest focusing dish in the world, which gathers electromagnetic waves from space. Located near the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, it’s close to the equator, which enables it to “see” (via radio waves) all the planets in the solar system; within six months of its opening, it enabled scientists to study the rotation rate of Mercury and determine that it rotated every 59 days, rather than 88 as was previously thought. It’s also been used for military purposes like locating Soviet radar installations by tracking their signals as they were reflected off the moon. It’s provided the first full imaging of an asteroid and also led to the first discovery of planets outside our solar system.

In 1999, it began collecting data for the SETI Institute; SETI stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” and the organization looks for deliberate radio or optical signals from other planets. The Arecibo Observatory also sends data over broadband to the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers, who, through the Einstein@Home program, donate their computers to be used for data analysis during periods when they would otherwise be idle. Eight years ago, three such volunteers in Iowa and Germany discovered a previously unknown pulsar, 17,000 light years from Earth.


The first medical school for women opened in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1848. It was started by Samuel Gregory, who named it the Boston Female Medical College. The first class — 12 women in all — graduated just two years later, in 1850. Gregory’s own formal medical training consisted of a summer lecture course that he had taken in anatomy and physiology. He wasn’t remotely a supporter of women’s rights, but he believed it was unseemly for male doctors to assist women in childbirth, so the college was mostly intended to serve as a school for midwives at first. In 1856, the school’s name was changed to the New England Female Medical College; it named among its graduates Rebecca Lee Crumper, the first African-American to earn a medical degree, which she did in 1864.


The “match race of the century” between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was run on this date in 1938. Seabiscuit had become something of a kindred spirit to dispirited Americans in the grip of the Great Depression: He was little, he was ugly, his legs were crooked, and he was plagued by frequent injuries. He was named for his sire, Hard Tack; a “sea biscuit” is another name for the hard bread eaten by sailors. Early in his racing career, he had been unreliable — sometimes blazing fast, sometimes lazy and tough to motivate — and he liked to overeat and oversleep. In spite of being trained by one of the top trainers in the business, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, he lost his first 10 races and no one really thought he’d amount to much. Fitzsimmons began to neglect him, and turned his attention to more promising colts.

But Seabiscuit eventually found a new owner. He also found a new trainer, who had recently served a suspension as a scapegoat in a doping case; and a new jockey, who had a drinking problem and happened to be blind in one eye. Trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard saw potential in the colt, and worked to awaken his competitive spirit. The horse’s stubbornness began to work in his favor, and soon he was winning. He would draw even with his competitors and stare them down out of the corner of his eye until they gave in, almost defeating them through sheer force of will. He became so competitive and so fierce that some of his stablemates refused to run against him in workouts. Track handicappers, in an attempt to make races more equitable, loaded him down with lead weights, but still he won. In 1937, as a four-year-old, he won 11 of 15 races and was the top money earner of the year. But he lost the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year to another stallion, who just happened to be his uncle.

That other horse was War Admiral, son of the great Man o’ War, who was Seabiscuit’s grandfather. War Admiral was everything Seabiscuit was not. Tall, gleaming black, and handsome, he had won the Triple Crown. A match race was set between the five-year-old Seabiscuit and the four-year-old War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. Forty thousand people packed the stands, and 40 million listened in on the radio. At one-to-four odds, War Admiral was the overwhelming favorite. Seabiscuit broke fast from the gate, pulling away quickly, but War Admiral gained on him and the two traded the lead for a while. Seabiscuit’s usual jockey, Red Pollard, was sidelined with a bad racing injury, but he’d told his replacement what to do: Ease up on the horse and let him get a good look at his opponent. Seabiscuit looked War Admiral in the eye and pulled away with a burst of speed, winning by four lengths. The little brown horse’s tale inspired two movies and several books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001). In 1940, The Saturday Evening Post called him “the Horatio Alger hero of the turf, the horse that came up from nothing on his own courage and will to win.”

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

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
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving! We are thankful for Marjane Satrapi, André Gide, George Eliot, and all the other writers born this day.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of Voltaire (1694), who wrote, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

Live from the Town Hall Theater in New York, it’s The McCoury boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and everybody’s favorite former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

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

The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which was only ten sentences long and which lasted about 2 minutes.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hugely popular online television series.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne, and then reigned for 45 years.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which was one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Marianne Moore, who once said, “I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

Live from the State Theater with Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, The Brothers Frantzich, and The Royal Academy of Radio Acting: Tim Russell & Sue Scott.

Read More
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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message