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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Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Other people imagine that if they exercise regularly and eat more fiber, they’ll live to be 98. I don’t. I believe that an exemplary healthful lifestyle makes it more likely I’ll be struck by a marble plinth falling off a building as I walk to the health club. I’m not even sure what a plinth is but it’s likely that one will kill me.

My grandma used to sing me to sleep with a song about two little children lost in a blizzard — “they sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried, and the poor little things, they lay down and died” — which is nothing Mister Rogers ever sang, but Grandma saw no reason to hide harsh reality from us. She did not tell us to look the other way when she chopped the head off a chicken. Death was a part of our lives. How many children today have observed a beloved relative swing an axe and decapitate a bird? Not many.

My fellow Democrats have been assuming for two years that our corrupt King would be brought to his knees by a keen investigator — and they are now sadly disappointed and wandering in confusion. Everyone knows he is corrupt — he himself boasted about it — he grew up admiring men who shrewdly worked the system to their own benefit, cutting corners left and right, stiffing the little guys, paying off the big honkers. Public service was never his thing, not then, not now.

Democrats are horrified by the King, of course, as most people are. He is compulsively cruel, resolute in his ignorance, proudly illiterate, and on the one occasion he was seen in church, he did not bother to recite the Nicene Creed, unlike the four ex-presidents in the church with him. He doesn’t believe in a Holy Trinity but rather a Fearsome Foursome, Himself included.

So Democrats have launched a couple dozen campaigns against him. Every Democrat with better than 5 percent name recognition is out on the trail speaking to crowds of librarians, yoga instructors, poets, birdwatchers, and organic farmers and talking about climate change, health care, and the need for civility in public life. Next spring, Democrats will nominate a beautiful person in a white robe and sandals who holds out his or her arms and birds come and perch on them.

We assume that this wonderful person will win. That is what should happen, just as we ought to have daffodils blooming in April. As a Minnesotan, I see danger in the act of leaping to logical assumptions.

I awake sometimes in the middle of the night, seeing the headline KING COASTS TO 2ND TERM. Political scientists are astonished — and historians. But bikers, Baptists, and lovers of horror novels are not. The King is a living parable, a bad dream become real. We are not an enlightened people. It is 1856 all over again, except now with social media. Nobody wants to hear this. When I say these things to my fellow Democrats, they excuse themselves and go to the kitchen and brew a pot of chamomile tea with touches of rosemary and warm up a plate of artisanal corn muffins.

They have contempt for the King, his bad grammar, his cruel stare, his love of the garish, his pettiness, his devotion to his hair, and their contempt will lead them to nominate a holy progressive who will have his or her lunch eaten. This is a Minnesotan’s view. I am looking out the window at snowy fields as I write.

Having said that, I am going for a walk. I’ll stick close to the curb, to avoid any falling plinths. Have a good day.

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

I don’t come from a huggy family. My wife does. I don’t. In my family, a pat on the back is considered sufficient, but when my wife walks into a room full of Keillors, she goes from one to another, throwing her arms out and clutching them to her, and they have to stand there and accept it or else look like soreheads.

People like us — white, Anglo, Midwestern, formal, reluctant to make eye contact, uptight, stiff, boring — are ridiculed, by comedians of color and also colorless comedians, and we have learned not to object. “Where’s your sense of humor?” people would say, so we laugh at the stereotype even though we don’t find it funny.

I don’t go around smiling. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy; it’s simply the culture I was born in. The photographs of my ancestors that we kept on the piano showed solemn bearded men and severe women and their gloomy children, no incisors visible whatsoever. My dad and uncles didn’t smile a lot. They associated smileyness with salesmen trying to charm you into buying a ten-year-old Dodge with a loose clutch and rust around the bumpers. I went off to college and, in order to be hip, read existential writers about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, while chain-smoking Luckies and drinking espresso, which tends to solemnize a person as well.

On account of my seriousness, people are always asking, “What’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I call this demeanorism, judging people by their facial expression. Inside, I’m pretty lighthearted but on the outside, I look as if I’ve been struck by a baseball bat and am trying to remember my name.

The squeeze that I experienced was ten years ago and I’m not saying it was traumatic but I do wish she would take ownership of it and express some regret at having ignored my feelings, and then I have a sudden sensation in my rear end, a suspicious flatness, and I reach back and there is no wallet there, and suddenly I’m up and running from room to room, checking pockets, looking under tables, calling up cafes I’ve patronized the past couple days.

This is the bright red wallet my wife bought me after I left a black wallet on the seat of a taxicab late one night and it occurs to me that this wallet loss, coming a month after the previous, may be what convinces her I need help. Tomorrow there’ll be a power-of-attorney form to sign and consultation with a series of people in white uniforms who take notes as I’m put through a battery of tests involving matching shapes on little wooden cubes, and my wife, who loves me dearly, will break the news gently. There is a care center that specializes in elderly men with cognitive issues. It’s called Sunnyvale and it has a triple-A rating from the AARP and there is shuffleboard and checkers and color TV in every room and a sing-along on Saturday nights where the elderly gather to sing Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones hits.

For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe Michelle Obama reached around me to lift my wallet out of my back pocket.

And then I find it. It’s in the freezer. I set it down when I was getting out the frozen waffles this morning.

Ignore whatever I was saying before. I am okay. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. This is all a man needs. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. It’s spring. We’re going to be okay.

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

This church is in Manhattan where temptations to pleasure line Amsterdam Avenue and I walk to church while smelling fresh croissants, rich dark coffee from Kenya, Japanese noodles, chrysanthemums, soft cheeses, and much more, most of which God is involved in producing. The hymn seemed to suggest that I sacrifice fresh pumpernickel and espresso for Wonder Bread and Sanka.

In the hymn, we also came out against “heedless word and deed” and, because it rhymes, “ambitions to succeed,” which I’m not giving up either. You give up heedlessness and pretty soon you’d never dare eat a peach or wade in a brook or ask a woman to dance. And ambition is what gets me moving in the morning. I’m 76 and writing a musical called “Dusty & Lefty” and already I’m envisioning the review in the Times — “gorgeous … lyrical … makes ‘Hamilton’ seem like a tabletop appliance that blends milkshakes.”

It’s a cruel hymn. It says, “Teach us to know our faults, O God,” which is fine, but then, for the rhyme, it says, “Train us with thy rod.” This is rhyme without reason. Why not “May we with thy truth be shod” or “Let us bloom as goldenrod”? The Psalmist said, “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me” but “Train us with thy rod” has definite sadomasochistic overtones in Manhattan.

The pleasures that I love include walking, riding the train, and sitting at a window seat as the airliner comes in low over the Sound and catches the deck of the carrier LaGuardia and hits the brakes. They include what I’m doing right now, tapping away on a laptop, not sure where this is going. They include monogamy, a good idea that puts the parents in the background. We are the stagehands. We have each other and are not searching for self-fulfillment. That’s for the children. I used to seek self-fulfillment in spirituous beverages and stopped fifteen years ago. It’s a pleasure to not do it anymore.

I enjoy the proximity of my wife who as I write is sitting fifteen feet away and, moments ago, when I stood on the sofa to pull the shade so the sun wouldn’t blind me, jumped up from her Sunday crossword and held me by the hips lest I fall. I’ve always wanted her to do that and never knew how to ask. It felt like we were about to dance the tango. The sun poured in like a spotlight at the Roxy and I waited for the drum roll. I hope she will grab me again and next time hold a red gardenia between her teeth and another behind her ear. I like a grabby woman. She womansplained that she was afraid I’d fall and crack my skull. It was very sweet.

Life is good. I can order a cab and then watch its progress on a map on my phone so I don’t need to stand at the curb, I can go into the drugstore and stroll amidst acres of emollients and salves and lubricants. Back in the day we only had Jergens which softened the skin but today’s products hydrate, rejuvenate, regenerate, perhaps emancipate and elucidate, they contain aloe and collagens and vitamin E from Egypt and seaweed oil and fluorides that promote fluency and efflorescence. I could buy socks with odor-eating chemicals. Paste that makes my teeth brilliant.

Instead, I buy a carton of dandelion tea. We used to consider dandelions an enemy and now it’s a comfort. Progress is made. I can text a photograph of us to our daughter at her school and she texts back, “Awwww. Sweet.” Pharmaceuticals that didn’t exist for my uncles enabled me to reach 76, an age when if I jump up on the couch, the woman I love will grab me. I can give up crankiness for Lent and bad grammar — I will not ask her to lay beside me but to LIE beside me — but I won’t give up heedless pleasure. It has been my ambition for many years.

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April 27, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Woodstock, MN

Woodstock, NY

April 27, 2019

Garrison Keillor celebrates National Poetry Month with poems & song at a benefit for Performing Arts of Woodstock.

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 21, 2019

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Writing

Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Read More

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

Read More

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So that’s over, and what’s next?

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It’s coming and will find you in due course

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

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I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

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Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

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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.

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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.

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