The Writer’s Almanac for November 6, 2018


A Private Man on Public Men

by Thomas Hardy

When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour’s tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.

 

“A Private Man on Public Men” by Thomas Hardy. Public domain. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of novelist Michael Cunningham, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1952). He was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and everything started out well for him. He got a couple of stories published, in The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly, and he got an agent and published a novel, Golden States (1984). He figured that the literary life would be easy. But his novel didn’t do very well, and he kept getting rejected. He worked in restaurants and bars to make his living.

He was working on a chapter for a new novel, and his partner Ken Corbett read it and thought it was great, and told him he should send it out. He sent it right to The New Yorker, which had rejected him many times, just to make a point and show Ken what a tough world it was for a writer. To his shock, The New Yorker loved it and published it as the story “The White Angel,” which turned into his second novel, A Home at the End of the World (1990). It got great reviews, but it was his 1999 novel, The Hours, that really launched him to fame — it was a best-seller, it won the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and it was made into a film in 2002. It’s the story of three women in different times and places — one of them is Virginia Woolf — all tied together by the novel Mrs. Dalloway, one of Cunningham’s favorite books and the first one he fell in love with. He said: “When I was 15 I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, because a girl on whom I had a crush threw it at me and said something like, ‘Why don’t you read this and try to be less stupid?’ I did read it and, although I remained pretty much as stupid as I’d been before, it was a revelation to me. I hadn’t known, until then, that you — that anyone — could do such things with language; I’d never seen sentences of such complexity, musicality, density, and beauty. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.’ Mrs. Dalloway made me into a reader, and it was only a matter of time until I became a writer.”

His most recent book is A Wild Swan and Other Tales  (2015), a collection of reimagined fairy tales in which the Beast stands ahead of you in the convenience store, buying a pack of smokes, and a lazy Jack (of the Beanstalk) prefers living in his mother’s basement to getting a job.


It’s the birthday of Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). He founded The New Yorker magazine but never really fit in with The New Yorker‘s audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he’d only read one book in his life. But he had actually started out as a migratory newspaper man, traveling the country and filing hundreds of stories from California and Brooklyn and New Orleans and Panama. He later said of that period in his life, “If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut.”

He settled in New York after serving in World War I, at a time when the city was suddenly filling up with smart, interesting people in their late 20s, and it occurred to him that there was no national magazine being written for this new generation. All the popular magazines at the time were either too intellectual or too middle-brow. Ross wanted to create a magazine that was funny and entertaining and unpretentious, and the result was The New Yorker, which was first published in February of 1925.

Ross knew right away that the magazine should have a distinctive look, and so he made sure that it was filled with cartoons. But at a time when most cartoons were caricatures of public figures or just one line gags with a picture attached, Ross insisted that his artists draw real things and real situations, people at bars or in offices or at parties or at home with their families, and the result was that he helped invent the kind of cartoon that The New Yorker still publishes today. Ross’s genius was in spotting talented writers and hanging onto them. He personally hired E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. Some of his employees were driven crazy by his endless memos and writing suggestions, or the way that he would walk into the writers’ office and shout that he wanted to hear fingers pounding typewriters. But most people said they never really knew him. James Thurber wrote: “You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off.” His is the only photograph that still hangs in the hallway of the New Yorker offices. It shows his hair slicked down, but just starting to stick back up.


Today is the birthday of the “March King,” John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C., in 1854. He began studying music when he was six, and over the course of his life he studied voice, violin, flute, piano, trombone, cornet, baritone, and alto horn, as well as composition. When he was 13, he tried to run away from home and join a circus band, prompting his father to enlist him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician. He published his first composition in 1872, at the age of 18, and was conducting a Broadway orchestra — for Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore — by the time he was 21. He went back to the Marine Band in 1880, this time as its leader, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure, he composed “Semper Fidelis,” which became the official march of the United States Marine Corps.

After he retired from the Marines, he formed his own concert band; they were the first American band to go on a world tour, and they even had their own baseball team. He was a strict perfectionist: Everything they played was note perfect and was accorded the same respect, whether it was a classical piece or a pop tune. During World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and led their band; by this time he was a wealthy man, so he donated his naval salary to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund.

He composed many kinds of music, including suites, fantasies, humoresques, and dances; he even composed several university fight songs, operettas, and other vocal pieces. It’s his marches that he’s remembered for, though. On Christmas Day, 1896, he composed one of his best beloved marches, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was named the official march of the United States by an act of Congress. In addition to his skills as a composer and conductor, he was also a fine marksman, and is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. His Hall of Fame biography includes the following quote: “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’.” He wrote several articles about trapshooting; he also wrote a full-length autobiography and three novels.

He was not a fan of the new recording industry and all its technology, and spoke adamantly against it at a Congressional hearing in 1906: “When I was a boy … in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

He was a hard worker, devoutly religious, and known far and wide for his personal integrity. He often said, “When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!” and his words were prophetic: He died suddenly of a heart attack following a rehearsal in 1932. 


It’s the birthday of sci-fi and fantasy novelist Catherine Asaro (books by this author). She was born in Oakland, California, in 1955. She’s the daughter of Frank Asaro, a nuclear chemist who discovered what’s known as the “iridium anomaly,” an unusually high level of iridium in one particular stratum of rock dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period. Iridium is otherwise quite rare on Earth, but it’s common in meteorites, and this discovery led his team of scientists to hypothesize that an asteroid may have struck the Earth 65 million years ago and caused the mass extinction of — among other organisms — the dinosaurs.

Catherine Asaro is best known in science fiction circles for her series of novels and novellas, Saga of the Skolian Empire. She also holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in the field of chemical physics, and is a member of a think tank called SIGMA, which is made up of authors of speculative fiction who advise the government on future trends that may affect national security. She often introduces complex mathematical concepts in her fiction, based on her numerous research publications in that field. Sometimes she includes an essay in the back of the book that explains the concepts more fully, and in lay terms. Here’s an example of how her mind works: “When I was making up the story for The Quantum Rose, I was also writing my doctorate, which used quantum scattering theory to give a coupled channel formalism for describing polyatomic photodissociation (such a catchy subject, soon to be a major movie … or maybe not). I used to lie in bed at night, thinking about my work. The way I relaxed was to let stories evolve in my mind, so the story for The Quantum Rose evolved right along with my thesis work. Pretty soon I was associating characters in the book with quantum scattering processes. It was fun, like putting together a puzzle.”

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A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

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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.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

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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.

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Writing

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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