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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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.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
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November 3, 2018

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Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

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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.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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