The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

I beseech thee, O Yellow Pages… by Barbara Hamby, from All-Night Lingo Tango. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I beseech thee, O Yellow Pages, help me find a number
for Barbara Stanwyck, because I need a tough broad
in my corner right now. She’ll pour me a tumbler
of scotch or gin and tell me to buck up, show me the rod
she has hidden in her lingerie drawer. She has a temper,
yeah, but her laugh could take the wax off a cherry red
Chevy. “Shoot him,” she’ll say merrily, then scamper
off to screw an insurance company out of another wad
of dough. I’ll be left holding the phone or worse, patsy
in another scheme, arrested by Edward G. Robinson
and sent to Sing Sing, while Barb lives like Gatsby
in Thailand or Tahiti, gambling the night away until the sun
rises in the east, because there are some things a girl can be sure
of, like the morning coming after night’s inconsolable lure.


It’s the birthday of Noah Webster, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). He’s best known as a lexicographer and a spelling reformer, and it’s his surname that makes up half of the title of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. He came from a landed Yankee family and went to Yale. He was a political activist, devoted to making America culturally independent from Britain. He was a prolific writer and he was a very serious scholar.

But he was also famously witty. Once, he was undressing the cleaning lady when his wife walked into his study and found them. His wife exclaimed, “Noah, I’m surprised!” The distinguished lexicographer, always a champion of accurate word usage, replied: “No, my dear. I am surprised. You are astonished.”


It’s the birthday of the man considered by many to be the world’s greatest wit: Oscar Wilde, (books by this author) born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He’s the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Salome (1891), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He once said, “Anybody can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature.”

He was a brilliant conversationalist. Anecdotes abound about his famous retorts. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (books by this author) wrote in his memoir about how he once had dinner with Wilde: “His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind. He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact. … He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique. He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself.”

There are entire books devoted to Oscar Wilde’s one-liners. It was Wilde who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” And he said, “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” And also, “To be premature is to be perfect.”

His most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened in London on Valentine’s Day 1895; he was 40 years old. A few months later, he was convicted of “acts of gross indecency,” meaning that he had a male lover. He was sentenced to two years hard labor. When he got out of prison he moved to Paris, where his health deteriorated and he died at the age of 46 in a seedy hotel, at which he was registered under the name Sebastian Melmoth. Poet W.H. Auden later wrote: “From the beginning Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands.”

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is never fair. … And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”


It’s the birthday of German novelist Günter Grass (books by this author), born in Danzig, Germany (1927), which is now Gdansk, Poland. He has written many novels, but is probably most famous for his first, The Tin Drum (1959), about a three-year-old boy who refuses to grow up so that he can escape the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Grass’s parents ran a grocery store, but week after week they barely broke even. All of Günter’s friends got allowances, but he never got anything. Finally, after he had pestered his mother so many times she couldn’t stand it anymore, she gave him the list of everyone who bought food on credit and owed the store money, and told her son to walk around the town asking them to repay their debt; if you can collect the money, she said, I’ll give you a percentage of it. So he became a successful debt collector — and finally got an allowance — when he was about 10 years old. Also when he was 10, he joined the Jungvolk, the junior version of Hitler’s youth group, and then became part of Hitler Youth. He volunteered for submarine service, and at the age of 17 he was drafted into the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s elite corps.

Throughout his career, it was public knowledge that Grass was part of the Hitler Youth and the army, but the fact that he was a member of the Waffen-SS did not emerge until he published his memoir Peeling the Onion in 2007. People were outraged. For many years he had been considered a moral voice of Germany in regard to the era of Nazism, and the fact that he had kept this piece of his past hidden caused many people to question everything he had ever said. In 1985, Grass had said it was a “defilement of history” when Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl laid wreaths at a cemetery that turned out to contain the graves of Waffen-SS soldiers, and now that he revealed himself to have been one, he was quickly labeled a hypocrite. Critics grew so angry that they called on him to return the Nobel Prize in literature, which he had won in 1999. They thought he should be stripped of honorary titles and publicly apologize. The controversy shocked and saddened Grass. He said: “The public’s reaction hit me very hard. It was unexpected. I couldn’t sleep at night. It was Tristram Shandy who helped me get over it all, to put everything in perspective. It made me laugh again, even though I didn’t have anything to laugh about. I saw Laurence Sterne dealing with his critics in the book and I admired the sharp, precise and witty way he did it.”

In Peeling the Onion he wrote: “An imprecise memory sometimes comes a matchstick’s length closer to the truth, albeit along crooked paths. It is mostly objects that my memory rubs against, my knees bump into, or that leave a repellent aftertaste: the tile stove … the frame used for beating carpets behind the house … the toilet on the half-landing … the suitcase in the attic … a piece of amber the size of a dove’s egg … If you can still feel your mother’s barrettes or your father’s handkerchief knotted at four corners in the summer heat or recall the exchange value of various jagged grenade- and bomb splinters, you will know stories — if only as entertainment —  that are closer to reality than life itself.”

His other books include Cat and Mouse (1961), Dog Years (1963), Crabwalk (2002), and Of All that Ends (published posthumously in 2016).


It’s the birthday of the American playwright Eugene O’Neill (books by this author), born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O’Neill spent much of his childhood in hotels and on trains, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold-prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O’Neill’s plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He won the Nobel Prize in 1936. After Shakespeare and Shaw, O’Neill is the most widely presented and translated dramatist in the English-speaking world.

He said: “One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.”

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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

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April 27, 2019

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 21, 2019

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Keep Lake Wobegon Weird! This broadcast from Austin, Texas, features musical guests Asleep at the Wheel and the Texas Tornadoes. Plus, updates from P.O.E.M., Dusty & Lefty, and Guy Noir.

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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

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.

Read More

So that’s over, and what’s next?

Finally it’s coming to an end, two years of speculation, more than what’s been written about the future of American higher education, the American novel, and the planet Earth combined, thanks to that long angular face with the sharp Puritan nose and the stone jaw, a man famous for his silence, and why is the name pronounced MULL-er and not MYOO-ler like all the Muellers I know — what’s going on here? Why the secrecy?

Read More

It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

Read More

Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Read More

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.

Read More

Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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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.

Read More

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