The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

The Hero’s Luck by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

When something bad happens
we play it back in our minds,
looking for a place to step in
and change things. We should go outside
right now, you might have said. Or:
Let’s not drive anywhere today.

The sea rises, the mountain collapses.
A car swerves toward the crowd
you’ve just led your family into.
We all look for reasons. Luck
isn’t the word you want to hear.
What happened had to,

or it didn’t. Maybe
the exceptional man can change direction
in midair, thread the needle’s eye,
and come out whole. But even the hero
who stands up to chance has to feel
how far the world will bend

until it breaks him. He can see
that day: the unappeasable ocean,
the cascades of stone. A crowd
gathers around his body. He sees that too.
someone is saying: His luck just ran out.
It happens to us all.


It’s the birthday of the man who wrote, “Since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” That’s E.E. Cummings, (books by this author) born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894), who penned nearly 3,000 poems, a couple of autobiographical novels, and several essays and plays.

He majored in classics at Harvard, gave a controversial graduation speech on modern art, worked for a mail-order bookseller, got bored, and volunteered along with his college writer friend John Dos Passos for an ambulance corps serving in France during World War I. It was in 1917, and partly to entertain himself and see what the censors would do, he wrote provocative letters espousing anti-war views and professing not to hate those enemy Germans. The French censors intercepted the letters and put him in a military detention camp on suspicion of espionage.

He got out of jail because his dad was well-connected, and came home a few months later, just in time for Christmas that year. He was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to infantry training camp. About five years later, in 1922, he published The Enormous Room, an autobiographical novel in which he made fun of the prison guards and sympathized with his fellow inmates at the camp. One biographer noted: “Cummings’ account of his imprisonment was oddly cheerful in tone and freewheeling in style. He depicted his internment camp stay as a period of inner growth.” He was only 28 years old when the book was published, and the book made him famous.

He published a few volumes of poetry and took a job as a traveling correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine. In the afternoons he painted and in the evenings he wrote, a routine he kept up for the rest of his life.


It was on this day in 1926 that Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne was published (books by this author). Milne was a writer for Punch, and many of his first “children’s” poems and stories were printed there, not intended for children at all but for whimsical adult readers. The first Pooh story, “In Which We are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin,” was published in The London Evening News on Christmas Eve in 1925 and broadcast on the BBC the next day.

Even though Milne based the Winnie-the-Pooh stories on his son, Christopher Robin, and his son’s stuffed bear, he didn’t even read the stories aloud to Christopher Robin. Milne preferred to read his young son the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Christopher Robin later said: “My father did not write the books for children. He didn’t write for any specific market; he knew nothing about marketing. He knew about me, he knew about himself, he knew about the Garrick Club — he was ignorant about anything else. Except, perhaps, about life.”

Winnie-the-Pooh begins:
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
“When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, ‘But I thought he was a boy?’
“‘So did I,’ said Christopher Robin.
“‘Then you can’t call him Winnie?’
“‘I don’t.’
“‘But you said —’
“‘He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what “ther” means?’
“‘Ah, yes, now I do,’ I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.”


It’s the birthday of the 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower born in Denison, Texas (1890). He grew up in a poor family that was very religious. His mother was a pacifist. When her son chose to go to West Point for college, she broke down in tears. He took a position training soldiers after he graduated in 1915. He wanted to go overseas to fight in World War I, but it ended a week before he was supposed to go over to Europe. He wrote a guidebook of World War I battlefields, but was then stationed in the Philippines.

He finally got back to the United States in 1939, and he was stationed at a based in Louisiana where he supervised the largest military games ever carried out in this country, a simulation designed to help prepare for a land war in Europe. Eisenhower planned the strategy for the invading army, and the following December, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was put in charge of the strategy for an Allied invasion of Europe.


It’s the birthday of the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield (books by this author), born in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). She was the daughter of a successful businessman who sent her away to school in England. At 18, her parents brought her back to New Zealand, and she found that she no longer had anything in common with her family.

She became one of the wildest bohemians in New Zealand. She had affairs with men and women, lived with Aborigines, and published scandalous stories. She moved back to London and lived in the bohemian scene there. At one point, she married a man she barely knew and left him before the wedding night was over because she couldn’t stand the pink bedspread.

She didn’t begin to write the stories that made her famous until her younger brother came to see her in 1915. They had long talks, reminiscing about growing up in New Zealand. He left that fall for World War I and was killed two months later. She was devastated by his death, and she wrote a series of short stories about her childhood, including “The Garden Party,” which many critics consider to be her masterpiece.

She said, “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare fiddle?”

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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.

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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

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