The Writer’s Almanac for October 4, 2018

The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats. Public domain. (buy now)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dangled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


This date marks the first formal run of the Orient Express in 1883. The train was the brainchild of Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banker’s son. He had been impressed by railway innovations he’d seen in America in the 1860s — particularly George Pullman’s “sleeper cars” — and envisioned a richly appointed train running on a continuous 1,500-mile stretch of track from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul). For its formal launch from the Gare de Strasbourg, Nagelmackers arranged battered, rusty Pullman cars on adjacent tracks to show his luxurious conveyance to its best advantage. Many of its first passengers on the 80-hour journey were journalists, and they spread the word of its paneled interiors, leather armchairs, silk sheets, and wool blankets. They also dubbed the train “the Orient Express” with Nagelmackers’ blessing. The train later earned another nickname, “the Spies’ Express,” due to its popularity in the espionage community.

One particular car played a role in both world wars. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed their surrender documents in an Allied commander’s private car. The car was a museum piece in Paris until 1940, when Hitler commandeered it and used it as the setting to dictate the terms of the French surrender. Later, when his defeat was imminent, he blew the car up so that it wouldn’t become an Allied trophy again.

The original Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul in 1977, and its new route ran from Paris to Vienna until 2007, when the train departed from Strasbourg instead of Paris. Finally, in 2009, the Orient Express ceased operation, citing competition from high-speed trains and discount airlines. It has spawned several offspring that have adopted the name for promotional purposes, including the Direct Orient Express and the Nostalgic Orient Express. Only the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which runs from London to a variety of European destinations and charges $2,300 U.S. to ride in the restored original cars, approaches the original “King of Trains and Train of Kings.”


Today is the birthday of the Great Stone Face: silent comedian Buster Keaton (1895), born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas. His parents were vaudevillians, and according to Keaton, he earned his nickname as a toddler, when he fell down a staircase. Harry Houdini picked up the child, dusted him off, and said some variant of, “That was a real buster your kid took!” His parents added him to the act when he was three years old, and he quickly learned that the more serious he looked, the harder the audience laughed. He had a natural ability to take a fall without being injured; many times his parents faced child abuse charges based on the way they threw him around the stage like a dummy, but Buster would remove his clothes to show no broken bones or bruises, and the charges were dropped. “The funny thing about our act,” he said in a 1914 interview with TheDetroit News, “is that dad gets the worst of it, although I’m the one who apparently receives the bruises … the secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don’t last long, because they can’t stand the treatment.”

He met film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York in 1917, and Arbuckle took him under his wing. The slight, acrobatic Keaton was the perfect complement to the large, bumbling Arbuckle, and their partnership flourished. Keaton successfully made the transition to a solo act in the 1920s, although, in that era of excess, his deadpan style didn’t earn him as many fans as Chaplin’s sentimental Little Tramp character, or Harold Lloyd’s plucky, optimistic on-screen persona. It was more than 20 years before his feature films — like The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928) — took their place in the pantheon of silent film masterpieces.

But the silent era was drawing to a close, and in 1928, he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM decided that they needed to take an active role in Keaton’s films. They hired other people to write and direct, and hired a double to do all his stunts. Though he always had work, and his MGM films made money, he considered signing with MGM the worst business decision of his life, and he left the studio in 1933. Marital trouble, heavy drinking, and creative frustration made him miserable. He returned to MGM in 1937, spending a couple of years writing gags for the Marx Brothers and providing material for Red Skelton, and then made some mediocre short films for Columbia. By the 1940s, his personal life was less tumultuous, he beat alcoholism through sheer force of will, and he spent most of the decade playing small roles in feature films. In the 1950s, he’d moved on to television, and his regular appearances on the small screen revived interest in his silent films. He was still working in the 1960s and still doing most of his own stunts. His last film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was filmed late in 1965. In January 1966, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, although he was never told of his diagnosis and thought he just had a persistent case of bronchitis. He died on February 1st.


Today is the birthday of Anne Rice (1941) (books by this author). She was born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien in New Orleans; she was named “Howard” after her father, but she changed her name to Anne of her own accord when she was in first grade at St. Alphonsus Grammar School. She married her high school sweetheart, poet and painter Stan Rice, in 1961. They moved to San Francisco, and while the counterculture movement was flourishing all around them, Anne didn’t participate. “I was typing away while everybody was dropping acid and smoking grass,” she told The New York Times in 1988. “I was known as my own square.” Their daughter, Michele, died of leukemia in 1972, when she was only five years old, and grief over her death proved to be the catalyst for Rice’s first book, Interview with the Vampire (1976). Two years later, her son Christopher — now a best-selling author in his own right — was born.

She has a complicated relationship with religion. Raised a Catholic, she left the church at 18, only to return after a couple of life-threatening illnesses in the late 1990s. She began a series of books about the life of Christ, but in 2010 announced on her Facebook page that she was leaving organized religion behind her once again. She wrote: “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”


Today is the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer (books by this author), born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862). He was one of the first American writers to capitalize on the new market in children’s literature which was created by universal primary education. At the time, most children’s books taught moral lessons, but Stratemeyer said, “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby.” Stratemeyer also figured that his books would sell better if they had recurring characters, so he created one series after another: the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls, the Bobbsey Twins. His work was so popular that he couldn’t keep up with the demand, so he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1910. Stratemeyer wrote the outline for each story himself, but he hired dozens of fiction writers to bang out the actual books under a variety of pen names.

When detective fiction took off in the 1920s, Stratemeyer created a detective series for kids called the Hardy Boys, which became wildly popular. He followed the Hardy Boys with a series about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. Publishers believed that books for boys always sold more than books for girls, but the Nancy Drew books ended up being the most popular books that Stratemeyer ever published.

After his death in 1930, his two daughters ran the syndicate. One of them, Harriet, wrote a number of the Nancy Drew books.


It’s the birthday of Roy Blount Jr. (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941) and raised in Decatur, Georgia. He’s been a freelance writer for more than a hundred different publications, and he’s the author of more than 20 books, on subjects “from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking.” He’s also a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up entirely of authors.

His latest book is Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations (2016).

Roy Blount Jr. said, “Language seems to me intrinsically comic — noises of the tongue, lips, larynx, and palate rendered in ink on paper with the deepest and airiest thoughts in mind and the harshest and tenderest feelings at heart.”

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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.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
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December 16, 2018

Sunday

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

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

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It’s the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, who opined, “writers are always selling someone out.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), who financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

It’s the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (Los Angeles, 1963), author of Bel Canto and other books, who co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

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.

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.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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