The Writer’s Almanac for October 5, 2018

Rye Whisky, Rye Whisky. Old American folk song. Public domain.

I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry;
If the hard times don’t kill me, I’ll live till I die.

Rye whisky, rye whisky, rye whisky, I cry,
If you don’t give me whisky, I surely will die.

I’ll tune up my fiddle, and I’ll rosin my bow
I’ll make myself welcome wherever I go.

Beefsteak when I’m hungry, red liquor when I’m dry,
Greenbacks when I’m hard up, and religion when I die.

They say I drink whisky, my money’s my own,
All them that don’t like me, can leave me alone.

Jack o’ diamonds, jack o’ diamonds, I know you of old,
You’ve robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold.

Oh, whisky, you villain, you’ve been my downfall;
You’ve kicked me, you’ve cuffed me, but I love you for all.

Sweet milk when I’m hungry, rye whisky when I’m dry,
If a tree don’t fall on me, I’ll live till I die.

You may boast of your knowledge, and brag of your sense
‘Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence,

Rye whisky, rye whisky, rye whisky, I cry;
If you don’t give me rye whisky, I surely will die.


It was on this day in 1970 that the Public Broadcasting Service was founded in America. The model for “public service broadcasting” was established in Britain in 1922 with the creation of the British Broadcasting Company, which a few years later became the BBC we know today, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The stated mission of the BBC was to “to inform, educate, and entertain.” It had lofty ideals for how it would serve the country, and adopted a coat of arms whose motto was “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.” At the same time in the United States, radio was being set up in a way that encouraged commercial-driven, decentralized programming.

So in 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act, with similar goals — the Act stated that the new media would be “for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes.” Johnson said: “It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit. That is the purpose of this act.” The Act established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and out of that, PBS and NPR.


Today is the birthday of astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958) (books by this author). He was born and raised in New York City and was interested in space from a young age, but in his Bronx neighborhood, African-American boys earned respect for athletic prowess rather than book smarts. Undeterred, he studied astronomy on his own, and was giving lectures on the subject when he was 15.

In addition to his work as director of the Hayden Planetarium and visiting research scientist at Princeton, he’s written eight books of astrophysics and has a particular interest in writing about space for the general public. He’s a popular guest on late-night talk shows, hosts NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS, and recently announced that he will be hosting a sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series.

He’s described himself as a “passionate agnostic,” and has collaborated with evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins on discussions of religion and science. He’s received his fair share of hate mail, but not because of his critique of religion: He spearheaded the controversial movement to have Pluto downgraded from full planet to dwarf planet status, something that the younger generation of astronomy buffs apparently found intolerable. Most of the hate mail came from schoolchildren.

He wrote: “I don’t care what else anyone has ever told you, the Sun is white, not yellow. Human color perception is a complicated business, but if the Sun were yellow, like a yellow lightbulb, then white stuff such as snow would reflect this light and appear yellow — a snow condition confirmed to happen only near fire hydrants.”


Today is the birthday of author Edward P. Jones (1951) (books by this author). He was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He never knew much about his father, who was a Jamaican immigrant; his mother worked as a dishwasher and was completely illiterate. He was a bookish child, never very popular, and what friendships he did make were usually lost because he and his mother moved frequently. He still lives a hermit-like existence in a sparsely furnished apartment, and when he does venture out for social engagements, he usually wants to be back at home. “When you move 18 times in 18 years,” he told The Washington Post in 2009, “you learn that the world is forever shifting; you can’t be certain of anything. But if you’re in your home, your apartment, and the rent is paid up, and there’s no reason for the landlord to knock on your door, then you’re okay. But once you leave your apartment, once you leave your home, then you can’t predict anything. It’s not your world; you can’t control it.”

He studied creative writing in graduate school, at the University of Virginia; when he graduated, it never occurred to him that he would get a teaching job, or even that he should look for one, so he took a position as a proofreader for an obscure tax publication called Tax Notes. He worked his way up to summarizing articles, and didn’t do much of his own writing at all during that period. He finished up some short stories he’d started, and that collection, Lost in the City, was published in 1991. He got an idea for a novel not long after that, and started thinking about it, just thinking, working it all out in his head for 10 years. When he was laid off from his job, he wrote the whole book — The Known World — in three months, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003.


The first televised presidential address aired on this date in 1947. President Harry Truman broadcast the speech from the White House, and his subject was food conservation. Europe was still reeling from World War II food shortages, and faced a winter famine brought on by regional droughts, floods, and unseasonable cold. Backing measures proposed by the Citizens’ Food Committee, Truman called on America’s farmers and distillers to reduce grain consumption, and asked the American public to do their part by observing “meatless Tuesdays,” going without poultry and eggs on Thursdays, and eating less bread. He felt that food aid was vital to the success of the Marshall Plan for post-war recovery in Europe. Truman assured the public that the government and armed forces would be following the measures as well, and the following day, the Citizens’ Food Committee published the White House menu for the first two restricted days:

Tuesday, luncheon — grapefruit, cheese soufflé, buttered peas, grilled tomatoes, chocolate pudding; dinner — clear chicken soup, broiled salmon steak, scalloped potatoes, string beans, sautéed eggplant, perfection salad, sliced peaches. 

Thursday, luncheon — corn soup, peppers stuffed with rice and mushrooms, lima beans, glazed carrots, baked apples; dinner — melon balls, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, green salad, coffee mallow.

In 1947, there were only about 44,000 television sets in the United States; nearly everyone got their news from the radio and the papers. But the little-seen broadcast changed the relationship between the government and the media all the same. All of Truman’s addresses from then on were televised, and in 1949 he became the first presidential candidate to air a paid political advertisement.

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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

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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

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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

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