The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

Sweet Betsey from Pike, old American folk song. Public domain.

Oh, don’t you remember Sweet Betsey from Pike,
Who crossed the big mountains with her lover, Ike;
With two yoke of cattle, a large yellow dog,
A tall Shanghai rooster, and one spotted hog.

One evening quite early they camped on the Platte,
’Twas nearby the road on a green shady flat,
Where Betsey, sore-footed, lay down to repose––
With wonder Ike gazed on that Pike County rose.

Their wagons broke down with a terrible crash,
And out on the prairie rolled all kinds of trash;
A few little baby clothes done up with care––
’Twas rather suspicious, though all on the square.

The shanghai ran off and their cattle all died;
That morning the last piece of bacon was fried;
Poor Ike was discouraged and Betsey got mad,
The dog drooped his tail and got wondrously sad.

They soon reached the desert, where Betsey gave out,
And down in the sand she lay rolling about;
While Ike, half distracted, looked on with surprise,
Saying, “Betsey, get up, you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

Sweet Betsy got up in a great deal of pain,
Declared she’d go back to Pike County again;
But Ike gave a sigh, and they fondly embraced,
And they traveled along with his arm round her waist.

Long Ike and Sweet Betsey attended a dance;
Ike wore a pair of his Pike County pants
Sweet Betsey was covered with ribbons and rings;
Says Ike, “You’re an angel, but where are your wings?”

This Pike County couple got married of course;
And Ike became jealous––obtained a divorce;
Sweet Betsey, well satisfied, said with a shout,
“Good-by, you big lummux, I’m glad you backed out!”

Tooral lal looral lal looral lal la la,
Tooral lal looral lal looral lal la la.


It’s the birthday of singer and songwriter Paul Simon, born in Newark, New Jersey (1941). He and his friend Art Garfunkel recorded a hit record but they didn’t want to be pop musicians, they were more interested in folk, so they recorded their first folk album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in 1964, and it was a flop, and Paul Simon moved back in with his parents. But without telling them, a producer added electric guitar, bass, and drums to the song “The Sound of Silence” and released it as a single, and it went to number 1 on the pop charts. Paul Simon said “Facts can be turned into art if one is artful enough.” And he said “I think I have a superior brain and an inferior stature, if you really want to get brutal about it.”


It’s the birthday of cookbook author Mollie Katzen (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1950). She grew up in a Jewish home, where she learned to love food. “Being grateful for food, slowing down around food — that’s what was sacred for me, and this was all in kashrut. […] Even a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, I love to ‘behold’ the popcorn, and not just mindlessly reach in and eat it.”

She went to college at Cornell University, although she dropped out partway through, frustrated that all the student activism made it impossible to actually attend classes. She said: “I just kind of wanted to go to school. Everyone was like, ‘Nixon invaded Cambodia, so we shouldn’t go to school!’ I was thinking, ‘I don’t completely see the connection.'” She moved to California, to the Bay Area, where she was inspired by the healthful-but-still-tasty food there. She returned to Ithaca to visit her brother, and he was on the verge of helping to launch a collectively owned restaurant called the Moosewood. Katzen decided to stay and help for a while, and ended up working at the Moosewood for five years. She collected recipes from the restaurant and published The Moosewood Cookbook (1977), with illustrations and hand-lettered recipes for dishes like Gypsy Soup, Tabouli, Vegetable-Almond Medley, and Zucchini-Feta Pancakes. She got a loan from a local bookstore and printed 800 copies, and they sold out within two weeks. So she printed 2,000 more, and they also sold out. The Moosewood Cookbook became a sensation. Recently, it was listed by The New York Times as one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. Since then, Katzen has published many more cookbooks, including The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1982), Sunlight Cafe (2002), Get Cooking (2009), and The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation (2013). 


It’s the birthday of novelist Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father was a Lutheran preacher, and the family moved from one coal-mining town to another. Richter said: “My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these.”

He went to school until he was 15, then dropped out to earn some money. He worked as a farmhand, salesman, bank teller, and plenty of other things, but he liked writing best of all, and focused on a career as a journalist. He worked his way up to editor of a local paper by the age of 19, but a couple of years later moved to Cleveland for a job as a private secretary, because it paid better. He published a couple of short stories — one of these, “Brothers of No Kin,” was hailed as the best short story of the year 1914 and published in the Best American Short Stories Forum. For that honor, he was paid $25. Richter said, “I had just been married, had sober obligations, and told myself stubbornly that if this was what one got for the ‘best’ story of the year, I had better stick to business and write in my spare time only the type of story that would fetch a fair price, which I did.” He was not shy about asking for employment — he sent letters to everyone he could think of, including President Woodrow Wilson. In December of 1914, the same year he had published “Brothers of No Kin,” he wrote a letter to Wilson that began: “I admit freely that I have no legitimate license to address you except the right of one sincere man to another. But I want a job. I am 29 years old and of good education. I have been secretary, banker, newspaper editor, salesman, business manager, advertising manager, correspondent and missioner. I can furnish A-1 credentials and handle most anything from typewriter to automobile and gun. For the past year I have been making enough for current expenses, contributing to magazines and moving picture producers and giving criticism to young writers through The Literary Bureau. But now I am soon to be married. And I want to get into something where ability and work will be recognized. In Cleveland a number of years ago I tutored sons of the most prominent families there. And now, since my success in magazine work, I feel honestly capable of teaching English, Rhetoric, Literature, Short Story Writing, Newspaper Reporting and any allied branches. In fact I am eager, confident for the work, urged by a natural love for teaching and adaptiveness to young people of any age. If you cannot place me yourself, may I earnestly ask you to suggest me somewhere or to mention a name to me?”

Richter’s wife, Harvena, was not in the best of health, and in 1928 the Richters uprooted and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the drier air would help her. There, Richter was charmed by stories of pioneer life in the Southwest and its land and folklore. He started writing longer fiction, and published his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), a story of cowboys and farmers in New Mexico at the turn of the century.

A neighbor in New Mexico, a longtime resident of Ohio, was fascinated by history, and the two men spent a lot of time talking about Ohio’s pioneer days. One day, his neighbor brought Richter a couple of books. Richter said later: “They were heavy, well used, more than 1900 pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me so I asked him if he would trade these two volumes for two of my own.” These stories inspired him to write a trilogy of novels set in Ohio, The Awakening Land trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The books tell the story of Sayward Luckett, a young woman whose family strikes out for the wilderness of Ohio from Pennsylvania. When The Trees begins, Sayward is a 15-year-old girl who takes on the responsibility of her younger siblings after her mother dies; by the end of The Town, she is a wife and mother of seven children.

Richter never achieved the level of popular success he desired. After the disappointing sales figures of The Trees, his friend and editor Alfred A. Knopf offered an explanation: “I think you must reckon the archaic language which you deliberately adopted a commercial handicap. I don’t question its artistic advisability mind you, but I think you must reckon on the sacrifice involved. I think also that The Trees suffered rather from lack of action and story, and gave the reader not enough narrative to bite into and something of the impression of being an overture rather than the main show.” Also, Richter’s brand of slow-moving historical fiction had some tough competition from more relevant contemporary novels — the best-sellers of the year 1940 included For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Richter, always anxious about money, was disappointed over and over again by the sales of his novels. These days, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) is probably his most read book, because it is required reading in many middle or high schools.


It’s the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce (books by this author), born in Mineola, New York (1925).

He said: “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”

And, “I won’t say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: ‘What I’m Going to Be if I Grow Up.'”

And, “A comedian is one who performs words or actions of his own original creation, usually before a group of people in a place of assembly, and these words or actions should cause the people assembled to laugh at a minimum of, on the average, one laugh every 15 seconds — or let’s be liberal to escape the hue and cry of the injured and say one laugh every 25 seconds — he should get a laugh every 25 seconds for a period of not less than 25 minutes, and accomplish this feat with consistency 18 out of 20 shows. Now understand, I’m discussing comedy here as a craft — not as an aesthetic, altruistic art form. The comedian I’m discussing now is not Christ’s jester, Timothy; this comedian gets paid, so his first loyalty is to the club-owner, and he must make money for the owner. If he can upgrade the moral standards of his community and still get laughs, he is a fine craftsman.”

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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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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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