The Writer’s Almanac for October 7, 2018

I died for Beauty––but was scarce by Emily Dickinson. Public domain.

I died for Beauty––but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb,
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room––

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty”, I replied––
“And I––for Truth––Themself are One­­––
We Brethren, are”, He said––

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night––
We talked between the Rooms––
Until the Moss had reached our lips––
And covered up––our names––


It’s the birthday of Amiri Baraka, (books by this author) born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey (1934). He published more than 40 books of poems, essays, and plays.

He was the poet laureate of New Jersey during the September 11 attacks, and a year later, he read his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” at a poetry festival. In it, he suggested that Israel knew about the attack beforehand; the poem was labeled anti-Semitic and caused a huge controversy. The governor of New Jersey tried to fire Baraka, but discovered that it wasn’t legally possible to fire a poet laureate. So the state passed a bill that dissolved the position, and since then, there has not been a poet laureate of New Jersey.


It was on this date that two major airlines were founded.

In 1919, KLM was founded, the Royal Dutch Airline. KLM is the acronym for the Dutch phrase meaning “Royal Aviation Society,” and it’s the oldest airline that still operates under its original name.

In 1903, the Wright brothers made their first brief, successful attempts at flying a controlled and powered airplane, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1909, the first official airlines had gotten off the ground. Headquartered in Frankfurt, it went by the acronym DELAG. But DELAG was an airline for airships, or dirigibles, not airplanes as we know them. It used airships made by the Zeppelin company.

Ten years later, when KLM was founded, they were ready to use airplanes. Their first flight was in 1920 from London to Amsterdam, on a biplane, a refined version of the basic design used by the Wright brothers. The biplane had capacity for four passengers, and KLM’s first flight carried just two journalists, plus a lot of newspapers. By the end of the year KLM had transported 345 passengers, 22 tons of cargo, and three tons of mail.


It’s the birthday of the labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden (1879). He grew up in a big, devout Lutheran family. They played music together and encouraged Joe’s musical talent, but they never discussed politics. His dad worked for the railroad but it was dangerous work, and he got injured and died on the operating table when Joe was eight. Joe went to work right away, working in a rope factory when he was nine, then as a fireman, and more odd jobs of one sort of another. And he kept playing music.

In 1902, his mother died. The six children sold the family home, divided up the money, and Joe and one of his brothers used their portion to buy passage to America. For the next 12 years, Joe Hill was all over the place, hard to keep tabs on — partly because so many myths about him were written down as fact later on. He spent time in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He was fired from one job for trying to unionize the workers; he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and organized for them; and he published political songs like “The Preacher and the Slave,” “The Tramp,” and “Casey Jones — The Union Scab.” He invented the phrase “pie in the sky” for his song “The Preacher and the Slave,” sung to the tune of “In The Sweet Bye and Bye.” It went: “You will eat, bye and bye, / In that glorious land above the sky; / Work and pray, live on hay, / You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” He played banjo, guitar, violin, and piano all over the country, in migrant worker camps or hobo jungles, spreading his songs and ideas, making money where he could. He surfaced briefly in Mexico, in British Columbia, in Portland, and maybe in Hawaii — always working different, temporary jobs, and always organizing for workers’ rights. He was arrested in 1912 in San Pedro, where he was supporting the dock workers’ strike by serving as the secretary of the strike committee and playing music.

In 1913, Joe Hill was working for a mine outside Salt Lake City. On the evening of January 10th, 1914, Hill sought medical treatment from a doctor named McHugh for a bullet wound in his chest, which he told the doctor he had received because of a fight over another man’s wife. He got a ride home late that night, and he tossed a gun out the car, a fact that he never really explained.

That same evening, two men were murdered in Salt Lake City: a storekeeper, John G. Morrison, and his son Arling. Morrison was a former policeman. The only witness who survived was Morrison’s son Merlin, who saw two men in red bandannas enter the store and shoot his father and brother. There was a trail of blood leading out of the store.

Several suspects in the case were identified immediately. They assumed it wasn’t a robbery attempt since the cash register remained full, so all the newspapers announced that it was someone seeking revenge. Two masked men had attempted to hold up Morrison before, and he had seriously injured one of the men when he shot at them, so there was speculation that it might be those two men back to finish their task. Only a few days before he was murdered, Morrison told a police officer that he wished he had never joined the police force, because now he lived in constant fear that the people he had arrested would come back to get him. And he told his wife that there were two men who lived in his neighborhood who were his enemies and that if anything happened to him he wanted her to know their names.

First the police picked up a man named Wilson, a recently released inmate whom Morrison had arrested, who had declared revenge on Morrison, and who was wanted for crimes in other states. They also picked up W.J. Williams, who had a bloodstained handkerchief in his pocket. They didn’t want to pursue the names of the men whom Morrison had named to his wife because they were considered good citizens.

After Dr. McHugh read about the murders in the paper, he called the chief of police and told him about his patient with a bullet wound. Joe Hill was arrested immediately. The evidence against him was shaky. Even though Merlin initially said that Joe Hill didn’t look at all like the men in the store, he changed his testimony in court. Apart from the fact that he had been shot and vague physical similarities to one of the two gunmen (mostly that he was tall), the biggest piece of evidence against Joe Hill was that he owned a red handkerchief. Hill and his attorneys were confident he would be acquitted, since there was only circumstantial evidence and, most of all, no motive was ever produced, certainly not a revenge motive.

But Joe Hill’s refusal to explain where he had gotten the gunshot wound worked against him. And he often just sat back and let the prosecution make claims against him. He refused over and over to establish an alibi. He claimed that he didn’t want to ruin the reputation of the lady in question, but that was all he would say. Some biographers interpret all this as a sign of his innocence — he was so sure that he wouldn’t be convicted that he didn’t fight back hard in court. Some people think that he was in bed with a married woman and didn’t want to ruin her honor. Other biographers see his vagueness and his fatalism as a sign of his guilt. Many surmise that he sat back and let the prosecution do its worst so that he could be the ultimate martyr for the labor movement, symbolizing the total injustice of the justice system. The attorney he met with after his conviction said to a newspaper: “That Hill is a strange one. It’s almost as if he needs to be a symbol for a cause.”

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that he was convicted without enough evidence, without even a motive. And not only was he convicted, but he was also sentenced to death.

Joe Hill did become a perfect martyr for the labor movement. His body was taken to Chicago, where it was met by a huge crowd, and his ashes were sent to an IWW chapter in every state (except Utah) and to supporters all around the world. On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, his ashes were simultaneously scattered. One envelope had been confiscated by the U.S. Postal Service in 1917 and turned up in 1988; those ashes were scattered in various places, and the leftist singer Billy Bragg even ate some of them.

In 1950, Wallace Stegner published Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel. Although a work of fiction, Stegner researched so thoroughly that he had the warden of the Salt Lake City penitentiary walk him blindfolded from Joe Hill’s cell and through all the steps of a mock execution, so that he could feel what it would be like.


It’s the birthday of journalist, nonfiction author, and writing teacher William Zinsser (books by this author), born in New York City in 1922. He’s written several books, including a couple of memoirs and books about travel, jazz, and baseball. His best-known work is On Writing Well (1976). In it he advocates a clean, spare style: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.”

He has a bit of advice for would-be authors of memoir: “Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and they will jump overboard to get away.”


It’s the birthday of poet and author Diane Ackerman, born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948) (books by this author). She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. One of her most widely read books is A Natural History of the Senses (1990), which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.

In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke and, as Ackerman wrote, “In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form.” His vast vocabulary was reduced to a single syllable: mem.

Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non-sequiturs like “my little spice owl,” “my little bucket of hair,” and “blithe sickness of Araby.” Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul’s journey back to language in One Hundred Names for Love (2011).

Her book The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007), the true story of how the directors of the Warsaw Zoo saved the lives of 300 Jews following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, was turned into a feature film last year.

Diane Ackerman wrote, “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”


Today is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr, born in Copenhagen (1885). Bohr theorized that atoms were composed of a small, dense nucleus that is orbited by electrons at a fixed distance from the nucleus. He also came up with the revolutionary principle of complementarity: that things like light or electrons can have a dual nature — as a particle and a wave, for example — but we can only experience one aspect of their nature at a time.

 


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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.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

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It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

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It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

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Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

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.

Read More

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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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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