The Writer’s Almanac for September 11, 2018


New York by Edward Field, from After the Fall: Poems Old and New. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I live in a beautiful place, a city
people claim to be astonished
when you say you live there.
They talk of junkies, muggings, dirt, and noise,
missing the point completely.
I tell them where they live it is hell,
a land of frozen people.
They never think of people.

Home, I am astonished by this environment
that is also a form of nature
like those paradises of trees and grass,
but this is a people paradise,
where we are the creatures mostly,
though thank God for dogs, cats, sparrows, and roaches.
This vertical place is no more an accident
than the Himalayas are.
The city needs all those tall buildings
to contain the tremendous energy here.
The landscape is in a state of balance.
We do God’s will whether we know it or not:
where I live the streets end in a river of sunlight.

Nowhere else in the country do people
show just what they feel—
we don’t put on any act.
Look at the way New Yorkers
walk down the street. It says,
I don’t care. What nerve,
to dare to live their dreams, or nightmares,
and no one bothers to look.

True, you have to be an expert to live here.
Part of the trick is not to go anywhere, lounge about,
go slowly in the midst of the rush for novelty.
Anyway, besides the eats the big event here
is the streets, which are full of love—
we hug and kiss a lot. You can’t say that
for anywhere else around. For some
it’s a carnival of sex—
there’s all the opportunity in the world.
For me it is no different:
out walking, my soul seeks its food.
It knows what it wants.
Instantly it recognizes its mate, our eyes meet,
and our beings exchange a vital energy,
the universe goes on Charge,
and we pass by without holding.


It’s the birthday of short-story writer O. Henry, (books by this author) born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on this day in 1862. He penned the witty, surprise-ending short stories “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” “A Retrieved Reformation,” and “The Cop and the Anthem.”

He worked at his uncle’s drugstore, becoming a licensed pharmacist when he was 19, and before he turned 20 he’d headed west to Texas, where he spent time on a ranch as a shepherd, domestic servant, and baby-sitter.

He moved to Austin, Texas, worked as a pharmacist, and played guitars on street corners around the city. He eloped with a tuberculosis-infected, rich and beautiful teenage girl whom he’d fallen in love with.

Later, he got a good-paying job as a bank teller so that he could support his wife and young daughter. But he was not a good bookkeeper, and he was fired for embezzlement. He took to writing full time.

The feds did an audit of the bank he’d been working at, and when they found a bunch of discrepancies, they decided to indict him on federal embezzlement charges. His wife’s dad posted bail for him, but instead of sticking around for trial, O. Henry fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras, where he stayed for months. But when he found out that his beloved wife was on the verge of dying from her tuberculosis, he came back to Texas and turned himself in. Soon after, his wife died. He stood trial, was convicted of embezzlement, and was sent away to a federal penitentiary in Ohio.

He wrote short stories there, and he came up with the pseudonym O. Henry. Magazine editors were clueless that the stories they published were written by an inmate locked up in a federal penitentiary.

He got out of jail and wrote fast and furiously, about 400 short stories in those years following his release. He became famous, and an alcoholic, and he died less than a decade after getting out of jail, at the age of 47, from liver disease.

In 1909, the year before he died, he conducted an “autobiographical interview” of himself for The New York Times. It appeared under the title: “‘O. HENRY’ ON HIMSELF, LIFE, AND OTHER THINGS; For the First Time the Author of ‘The Four Million’ Tells a Bit of the ‘Story of My Life.'”

He wrote:”I’ll give you the whole secret of short-story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II.”

Asked by himself about writer’s block, O. Henry answered:
“Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can’t turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life — that’s the stimulant for a story writer.”

Henry said: “People say I know New York well. Just change Twenty-third Street in one of my New York stories to Main Street, rub out the Flatiron Building, and put in the Town Hall and the story will fit just as truly in any up-State town. At least, I hope this can be said of my stories. So long as a story is true to human nature all you need do is change the local color to make it fit in any town North, East, South, or West. If you have the right kind of an eye — the kind that can disregard high hats, cutaway coats, and trolley cars — you can see all the characters in the Arabian Nights parading up and down Broadway at midday.”


On this date in 1941, ground was broken for the Pentagon Building in Arlington, Virginia. In July of that year, Brigadier General and engineer Brehon B. Somervell had summoned two of his subordinates and told them to draw up plans for an office building to house 40,000 War Department workers; it should be four stories tall, he told them, and cover 4 million square feet. He gave them their assignment on Thursday afternoon, and said he wanted the plans on his desk by Monday. They delivered, and construction began two months later. Sixteen months later, the Pentagon was complete.

Sixty years to the day after the groundbreaking, on September 11, 2001, a passenger jet piloted by terrorist hijackers crashed into the Pentagon, killing all aboard the jet and more than a hundred people inside the building itself. The jet crashed into a wing that was being remodeled, so many of the offices were unoccupied; otherwise, the death toll would have been much higher.


The Hope Diamond was stolen on this date in 1792. At that time, it was known as the French Blue. The dark blue gemstone came from a mine in India, and was originally about 112 carats. France’s King Louis XIV bought it from a traveling merchant in 1668, and had it re-cut into a 67-carat heart shape. The king wore it on a ribbon around his neck for state occasions. But on this date in 1792, during the French Revolution, the royal treasury was looted, the crown jewels were stolen, and the diamond lost. It turned up in London 20 years later.

The Hope Diamond is rumored to be cursed. It’s said that the traveling merchant who sold it to Louis XIV had stolen it from a statue of a Hindu idol; he was later torn apart by wild dogs, or so the legend goes. Subsequent owners have suffered financial ruin, personal tragedies, and violent deaths. Much of the legend can be traced back to Pierre Cartier; he spun tales of a curse to tempt Evalyn Walsh McLean, a young and eccentric socialite. Cartier had sold her expensive gems in the past, and hoped to sell her the Hope Diamond as well, but she didn’t care for the setting and she was playing hard to get. So he put the stone in a new setting and gave it a sinister history, and she bought all of it for $180,000. It now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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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.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no 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.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

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.

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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

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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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