The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

Friendship After Love by Ella Wilcox Wheeler. Public domain. (buy now)

After the fierce midsummer all ablaze
Has burned itself to ashes, and expires
In the intensity of its own fires,
There come the mellow, mild, St. Martin days
Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze.
So after Love has led us, till he tires
Of his own throes, and torments, and desires,
Comes large-eyed friendship: with a restful gaze,
He beckons us to follow, and across
Cool verdant vales we wander free from care.
Is it a touch of frost lies in the air?
Why are we haunted with a sense of loss?
We do not wish the pain back, or the heat;
And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete.


It was on this day in 1892 that the Pledge of Allegiance was recited en masse for the first time, by more than 2 million students. It had been written just a month earlier by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy, who published it in Youth’s Companion and distributed it across the country. It was recited on this day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It was slightly shorter in its 1892 version: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

After that, it got revised twice, and both revisions made the Pledge wordier. The first was in 1923, when it was changed from “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.” This change was made to ensure that immigrants were pledging to the American flag and not the flags of their home countries. The second change was to add the words “under God.” A few determined preachers worked for years to get it changed, but it wasn’t until 1954 that it was amended. President Eisenhower attended a sermon by the Reverend George Docherty, who said: “Apart from the mention of the phrase, ‘the United States of America,’ this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity.” Eisenhower was convinced and within a few months the Pledge was amended to include “under God” as a way to distinguish this country from the Soviet Union.


It’s the birthday of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1910). His parents were Irish-Catholics who met as actors in a play called The Sign of the Cross. His mother died when he was three, but for a few years he enjoyed life with his father and younger brother. He wrote: “My small brother and I spent the early years in an old-fashioned country. The foliage of the tree at our window, dusky in summer or thrashing wet in summer storms, brought living nature into the room on which we closed and opened our eyes. […] Close by was the smooth texture of wallpaper tinted with pale leaves and flowers. Downstairs the windows of the entrance hall, facing south, had panes of colored glass, and sumptuous lights of purple or red gold would be found brightening or fading here and there in the room. Outside there was the quietude of the street, shady or snowy, broken by wagons, by a rare automobile, and by the slow heavy meter of the freight trains clanking by at the corner, by day or by night — one of the great sounds the world made.” Then his brother, his only sibling, died when Fitzgerald was seven. His father, an invalid, was bedridden and required constant care from his son. Despite it all, Fitzgerald excelled as a student and an athlete, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was also from Springfield, took the boy under his wing.

When Fitzgerald was 17, he finished high school and his father died. He didn’t feel ready for college, so he went to the Choate School in Connecticut, and there he met the classics teacher and translator Dudley Fitts. Fitzgerald was in awe of his new teacher, and he decided to go to Harvard because Fitts had gone there. At Harvard, he started publishing poems in Poetry magazine. He graduated with honors. After graduation, he worked as a journalist, for the New York Herald Tribune and Time. He started collaborating with Fitts to translate Greek drama.

Fitzgerald was married three times. His second wife was Sally Morgan, whom he met while serving in the Navy during World War II. Sally was a stylish, smart young woman, a devout Catholic, and a naval intelligence officer, just like Fitzgerald. She had planned to become a nun, but changed her mind and married Robert instead. He re-embraced the Catholicism of his youth. They settled in Connecticut, and had a wide circle of literary friends, including Robert Lowell. In a letter to John Berryman, Lowell wrote: “Fitzgerald is good on the classics, and good (very strident Catholic, though) on religion. Terribly patient and earnest and somehow surprisingly subtle at times — and completely unselfish. […] I think you’d have hit it off, if he’d talked.” It was Lowell who introduced the Fitzgeralds to a young writer, also Catholic, named Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor and the Fitzgeralds hit it off immediately. She was looking for somewhere to stay while she finished her first novel, so the Fitzgeralds invited her to stay with them in Connecticut. She lived with them for almost two years. She worked on her novel writing in the mornings, and helped take care of the Fitzgerald children in the afternoons. In the evenings she and Robert and Sally would sit around the kitchen table, drinking martinis and talking about writing, movies, and theology. The Fitzgeralds made O’Connor the godmother of their daughter Maria — the editor Robert Giroux was Maria’s godfather.

O’Connor became very ill with lupus, the disease that would eventually kill her, and she moved back to Georgia. But she wrote the Fitzgeralds constantly. Soon after leaving, she wrote to them: “I hope this one will be a girl & have a fierce Old Testament name and cut off a lot of heads. You had better stay down and take care of yourself. Your children sound big enough to do all the work. By beating them moderately and moderately often you should be able to get them in the habit of doing domestic chores.”

After Flannery O’Connor died, Robert Fitzgerald became the executor of her literary estate. In 1965, he became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard. When he was appointed, Time magazine wrote: “Last week Harvard assigned the chair to methodical, elegant, harmonious, dignified, energetic Robert Stuart Fitzgerald, 54, poet, journalist, anthologist and translator of the classics.”

Robert Fitzgerald’s books include translations of The Iliad (1974) and The Aeneid (1983); books of poems: A Wreath for the Sea (1943), Spring Shade (1972); and The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs and Selected Writings (1993). He died in 1985 at the age of 74.

He said, “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.”


It’s the birthday of author and psychologist Robert Coles (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1929). He’s the author of more than 60 books. Coles was in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement, planning to lead a low-key life as a child psychologist. But one day, during a visit to New Orleans in 1960, he saw a white mob surrounding a six-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges, who was kneeling in her starched white dress in the middle of it all to pray for the mob that was attacking her. Coles decided to begin what would become his work for the next few decades, an effort to understand how children and their parents come to terms with radical change. He conducted hundreds of interviews on the effects of school desegregation, and he shaped them into the first volume of Children of Crisis (1967), a series of books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

When Coles was 66, he co-founded a new magazine about “ordinary people and their lives.” It was called DoubleTake, and it featured photography and writing in the documentary tradition. The magazine was printed on fine paper with big, beautiful photo reproductions, and it won lots of awards.

Robert Coles said, “We should look inward and think about the meaning of our life and its purposes, lest we do it in 20 or 30 years and it’s too late.”


It’s the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress (books by this author), born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). Childress was primarily a playwright, and her plays included Trouble in Mind (1955), Wedding Band (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969). But she’s best known for her novels A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973) and A Short Walk (1979).

Childress said, “Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.”

The "Old Friends" tour featuring Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky, and Garrison Keillor commences Wednesday, February 20th with a run of Minnesota dates! Click the links below for info on each.

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now joins the other triple-initial people, like MLK and JFK and FDR and FAO Schwarz, and AOC is a good code name for her. It’s got electricity (AC), a hint of command (C.O.), and a sense of exhilaration (O!). Her story is irresistible: a 29-year-old bartender going to Congress. Of course she’s new and she’ll need to learn a few things. 1. The press is not your friend. 2. Public attention is fleeting. 3. There is manure on the sidewalk: don’t step in it. But (4) you have a fabulous smile, never lose it, it’s your best weapon. We have all the cautious mumblers and harrumphers in dark suits that we need. Time to bring in the sopranos. I saw a picture of her in the Capitol walking down a marble hallway among grim-faced men, an enormous smile on her face. Bernie, your replacement has arrived.

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child. I had 18 aunts. They were more interesting than the uncles. Women told stories; men issued wide-ranging proclamations. Mrs. Shaver and Mrs. Moehlenbrock loved teaching; they ran a tight ship but I looked forward to school and when I stood and pledged allegiance, I was pledging myself to them. Mr. Lewis was scary and exercised power in cruel and willful ways. I was prepared to welcome a woman president by 1952, long before the rest of the country.

I’ve been a guy long enough to know something about the gender and what we want is to be loved. The APA left that out of their study. We’re capable of being jerks, God knows (He really does!), but we are emotionally needy. We are far from being the solo Pathfinder or Deerslayer of Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Chuck Schumer peering over his granny glasses wants to be loved. Barack basks in adoration; it’s one of his problems. And Number 45 Himself, the ultimate ugly American, a guy who whenever he opens his mouth you see big balloons of ignorance and arrogance and self-pity — he told the New York Times he thought the paper should be nicer to him because he is, after all, from New York. No president ever talked like that for the record: “I think you ought to be nice to me.” It’s what girls used to say.

If AOC wants to reduce billionaires to 500-millionaires to pay for universal health care, she needs to make them feel good about themselves. If she attacks them for having destroyer-sized yachts and six homes and being unaware of how to use a vacuum or a dishwasher, they will feel bad and try to crush her. Billionaires are susceptible to beautiful women. Look at Jeff Bezos. If AOC can keep that big smile of hers shining, she can confiscate five of the homes and the confiscatee will shrug and accept it. The townhouse in London was hardly used, ditto the chalet in Provence, and the Jamaican estate had such a small airstrip it was scary to land the Gulfstream. Pacific Palisades will be missed but 10,000 sq. ft. on the 65th floor overlooking Central Park — one can make do.

Men are captivated by women and yearn for their approval. There is no sound so sweet to me as the sound of my wife in the next room laughing at something I wrote. The other day I saw a line in a poem by Marie Howe that twanged my heart. A deliveryman comes with a package and speaks to her in a Jamaican patois and smiles—

A smile so radiant that
Re-entering the apartment I’m
A young woman again, and
The sweetness of the men I’ve loved walks in
Through the closed door.

A woman who looks back at the men in her life and thinks sweetly of them: this, to me, is beautiful beyond words. A man could almost live off that. My wife laughed six times at this column. If you didn’t, be glad we’re not married.

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Did you know that when Douglas MacArthur became a general, he hired his own public relations firm to promote his image back home? Did you know Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream? And McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is known as the City of Palms but also has a good deal of mesquite and deciduous trees. And the McCarran Act prohibited the picketing of federal courthouses. You learn these things roaming around freely rather than at a table with a bunch of smarty-pants sitting behind their name cards and each with his own glass of water. But the information is out there. All you need to do is connect the dots.

My Executive Time has been crucial to me ever since I was 16 and I hit the wall in mathematics and it looked like I was headed for a career in dishwashing, but sixty years later, look what happened. The math whizzes got good jobs that turned out to be treadmills to obsolescence. New Math came in, smarter people took over, many of them from foreign countries, and now I see those old whizzes taking tickets at parking ramps, whereas I’ve become a huge success. People stop me on the street all the time and say, “You have changed my life. You say things I’ve been thinking for years. How do you speak for the common man the way you do?”

The secret is Executive Time. For six hours a day, I remove myself from so-called experts and wise guys who think they got all the answers and I trust in my own instincts. I am smarter about most things than people are who’ve been studying them all their lives. I can run circles around those people.

The only math I did today was to tote up the tip on my steak sandwich, 10 percent. Just move the decimal point. The waiter wept. “A thousand thanks, sir. I have student loans to pay off, from fifteen years working for my Ph.D. in brain surgery.” The guy is an international authority on the multifocal cerebral infarcts along the left palpebral fissure of the lapsarian cortex and he’s warming up my coffee.

People ask if I’m going to run for president. I tell them, “I’m looking into it.” It looks like a good job to me. The helicopter service is incredible, there are beautiful motorcades, and wherever you go, all the microphones are pointed at you. Highly educated journalists, trying to catch every word you say.

The only thing keeping me from running is the fact that I’m Canadian. I walked across the border in northern Minnesota, no wall, nothing but an ordinary barbed wire fence, you just duck between the top and middle wires and you’re in. I learned to pronounce “about” as “about” and not “aboot,” and I was all set. There are millions of us here, escapees from harsh winter and socialized medicine. I bought my passport in Buffalo for $50. Nobody can tell except that I’m a little bowlegged from playing hockey and I get teary-eyed when I hear “O Canada.”

I settled in Minneapolis and joined the Mondale gang that controlled the supply of coffee coming into the state. He sold decaffeinated coffee to Lutherans, which made them passive and inattentive and that was the secret of his power. We took a cut of the collection and owned the green Jell-O concession. Him and me were all set.

So the phone rings and this lady says, “You can’t say ‘him and me.’” And I say, “I just said it and I meant it.” There are people like her in Minnesota who make a person feel small and that’s why Executive Time is so important: you get away from those people. For six hours a day, it’s just me and my hair. It’s beautiful hair and it’s intelligent. It speaks very quietly. It says, “Stick with me and you’ll be amazed where we wind up.”

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

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Historic Holmes Theatre. 7:30 p.m.

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at A Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 24, 2019

Sunday

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Crooners. Shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

It’s the birthday of George Washington (1732), whose inaugural address was the shortest in history: 133 words long, and it took him just 90 seconds to deliver.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Communist Manifesto, which proclaimed that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” was first published on this day in 1848.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

It was on this day in 1877 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” premiered in Moscow. It was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, and it got bad reviews.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

It’s the birthday of writer Amy Tan (1952), who wrote a book of short stories in the span of about four months that became the bestseller “The Joy Luck Club.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

Originally broadcast from Winona State University in Minnesota. With special guests, legendary blues pianist and singer Marcia Ball (pictured), plus the eclectic and electric Cajuns, BeauSoleil.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (1931), whose mother always sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. The exhibit featured works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and more.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

On this date in 2001, a working draft of the human genome was published. Scientists had expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes, but we have only about 20,000.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

For Valentine’s Day, a few excerpts of love letters from famous authors, and a poem by Connie Wanek, “First Love.”

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Writing

What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Read More

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Read More

Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

Read More

A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

Read More

Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

Read More

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