The Writer’s Almanac for October 3, 2018

Straightpins by Jo McDougall, Poet Laureate of Arkansas, from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems. © University of Arkansas Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Growing up in a small town,
we didn’t notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker’s floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss—
our days filled with open fields,
football,
turtles and cows.

One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we’ve become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we’ve seen a turtle
or a cow?


It’s the birthday of historian and statesman George Bancroft, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1800). George Bancroft lived to be 90 years old, so he saw most of the 19th century. He taught Greek at Harvard. Then President Polk appointed him Secretary of the Navy, and during his tenure, Bancroft established the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was later appointed the U.S. diplomat to Britain. While he was there, he wrote his 10-volume History of the United States.

He said, “By common consent gray hairs are a crown of glory; the only object of respect that can never excite envy.”

And he said, “The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another.”


It’s the birthday of Emily Post, born in Baltimore (1873), whose marriage broke up when her husband lost his fortune in a stock panic, and then it came out that he was having an affair. Post became one of the first divorcées in her high-society circle, and she started writing to support her two children. She published several novels, and an editor suggested that she write an etiquette manual when he noticed that her novels were full of observations about etiquette. She thought etiquette manuals were awful, so she set out to write a different kind of etiquette manual, more about treating people decently than just following rules. The result was her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922), and she wrote about etiquette for the rest of her life — Emily Post, who said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”


On this day in 1932, Iraq gained independence from Britain. Iraq had been under British control for the past 13 years, from 1918 to 1932. Before that, Iraq was under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had sided with Germany during World War I — and after the war, victorious Britain took control of Iraq.

When the U.K. granted Iraq sovereignty on this day in 1932, Iraq officially became the “Kingdom of Iraq” and was governed by an Iraqi family called the Hashemite dynasty. Britain kept military bases there and some other land use rights.

But in 1941, just nine years after independence, there was a coup. It was led by a group of Iraqi military officers called the “Golden Square” who disliked the British influence on Iraq’s ruling monarchy. Britain was fighting World War II, and invaded Iraq in May 1941 because it was worried that the new Iraqi regime would align itself with Germany and cut off oil supplies to Britain.

That conflict, called the Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941, was over within a month. The Golden Square coup leaders fled, and the Iraqi monarchy that had been ousted was now restored. Britain occupied Iraq for most of the rest of the decade.

Then, in 1958, there was another coup by the Iraqi military, called the 14 July Revolution. Once and for all, it overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, which many Iraqis saw as puppets of the British government. Iraq became a republic, led by a military general. A new constitution for the new nation was written up right away.

But in 1963, that Iraqi government was overthrown by a different Iraqi military leader, and then, five years later, that new government was overthrown by the Arab Socialist Baath Party. In July 1979, Baath Party member Saddam Hussein seized the presidency, even though his own party was in power. He stayed in power until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A new constitution for Iraq was approved in 2005; it replaces the 1958 constitution written up when Iraq first transitioned from monarchy to republic.


On this date in 1849Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) was found unkempt and delirious outside a pub in Baltimore. He had been en route from Richmond to Philadelphia on a business trip, and stopped off in Baltimore on September 28 for reasons known only to him. He was found on Lombard Street, outside Ryan’s Tavern, and he appeared to be dressed in someone else’s clothing. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness — occasionally lucid but often delirious or combative — until he died four days later. He was never able to tell how he came to be in such a state; newspapers reported “congestion of the brain” as the cause of death, but there was no death certificate and no autopsy, and the reason for his demise remains a mystery, though his biographers have put forward several theories.

Because he was found outside a tavern, many people assumed he’d gone on a bender, even though he’d sworn off alcohol six months earlier. The temperance movement was quick to point to Poe as a cautionary tale. Another theory holds that Poe was the victim of “cooping,” in which political gangs would kidnap people, imprison them, drug them, beat them, and force them to vote repeatedly at polling places all over the city, wearing an assortment of disguises. Ryan’s Tavern was also a polling place, and Poe was found on election day; what’s more, his clothes were ill-fitting, dirty, and threadbare, which didn’t jive with Poe’s reputation as a natty dresser.

Much of the Poe legend — namely that he was a drunk and a madman with few friends and no morals — originated with an obituary and memoir written by Rufus Griswold, a literary rival and the subject of one of Poe’s scathing reviews. Griswold spread rumors about the recently deceased Poe in an attempt to scuttle sales of Poe’s books, but the rumors had the opposite effect. Griswold is now remembered as Poe’s first biographer; his own literary output has long since been forgotten.

Poe was buried at the Westminster Hall and Burial Ground in Baltimore. In 1949, 100 years after his death, a stranger paid a visit to the cemetery in the wee hours of January 19, which was Poe’s birthday. The stranger, presumed to be a man, was dressed in a black coat and hat, and his face was obscured with a scarf; he drank a cognac toast to Poe and left the rest of the bottle, along with three meticulously arranged red roses, on his grave. Thus began a tradition that lasted 60 years. The “Poe Toaster,” as he became known, would slip in surreptitiously, leave his tribute, and disappear into the night. Although onlookers occasionally glimpsed him, his identity was never revealed. He died in 1998, after passing the tradition on to his son, according to a note that was left with the bottle and roses. The last visit by the Poe Toaster was in 2009; he may have died, or perhaps the ending was planned to mark the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth in 1809. Other fans, known as “faux Toasters,” have carried on the tradition for the last two years, but the original Toaster appears to have retired. 


It’s the birthday of Gore Vidal (1925) (books by this author). He was born Eugene Luther Vidal at the West Point Academy in New York, where his father was an instructor. He changed his first name when he was a teenager, to honor his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist senator from Oklahoma. Eugene grew up in his grandfather’s house near Washington, D.C., after his parents divorced, and it was from his grandfather that he inherited a keen interest in politics and history.

He published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946, at the tender age of 20. He wrote it in the spare style of Hemingway, and it was inspired by his experiences as first mate on an Army supply ship. Critics loved it, but they were less enthusiastic about his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), whose frank depiction of homosexuality shocked many mid-century readers. The New York Times refused to review his next five novels, and he’s never forgiven the paper, saying it “never found a well it could not poison.” It didn’t stop him writing, though, and over the next 10 years he continued to produce novels with subjects as diverse as medieval legend, Central America, and classical antiquity. He’s well known for his works of historical fiction — such as Julian (1964), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984). And his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, a satire about a transgender person, was an international best-seller. The New York Times grudgingly called it “witty”; it also called it “repulsive” and “a funny novel, but it requires an iron stomach.”

In the mid-1950s he branched out even further, writing a series of potboiler mysteries under the pen name “Edgar Box.” He also proved himself as a successful television writer, penning 20 dramas and literary adaptations for the small screen. He adapted one of his original teleplays, Visit to a Small Planet (1955), for the stage, and it became a hit on Broadway; he also wrote several original and adapted screenplays in Hollywood. And he began publishing essays of social and political criticism, which have been gathered every decade or so into best-selling collections. He wrote two memoirs (Palimpsest in 1995 and Point to Point Navigation in 2006), and several book-length essays on American history and politics.

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

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December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

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Today is St. Nicholas Day; tomorrow, good children around the world will wake up with gifts of sweets, oranges, and nuts in their shoes.

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Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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It was on this day in 1839 that 30-year-old Illinois state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court. 

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On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She’d complied in the past, but this day, she was tired.

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

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.

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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.

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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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