The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

Sonnet 91 by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force;
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.


On this day in 1982, Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. “Read it sideways” he wrote, so readers would realize it looked like a smiley face 🙂.

Fahlman’s wasn’t the only suggested solution to the growing problem of users misreading the tone of sarcastic comments. Three days prior, one Carnegie Mellon user posted a hypothetical physics problem involving an elevator, fire, and mercury. Another responded by posting a facetious warning that the department’s elevator had been burned and contaminated, intending to imply that someone had attempted the experiment. Trouble was, plenty of people didn’t get the joke. The following day, after the rumor had finally been put to rest, someone wrote, “Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice that is to be taken as a joke.” It is, of course, impossible to know whether the writer intended this post as a legitimate course of action or as a joke. Regardless, numerous people chimed in with various suggestions, the earnestness of which was, again, difficult to determine. Was the poster who recommended using the percent sign instead of the asterisk sincere? Possibly. The one who proclaimed that the ampersand looks “like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter”? Probably not. The one who developed a complete taxonomy and scale of joke types and values, complete with a coding schema? These were computer scientists, after all.

It was then that Fahlman proposed his smiley face, the first-ever emoticon (although that term, a portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon,” wasn’t regularly used until 1994). In the same post, he postulated that perhaps a colon, hyphen, and opening parenthesis — the frowny face — could be used to indicate serious posts. Other posters began using the smiley face to mark jokes, and the convention quickly spread — and mutated to all kinds of typographical pictographs. Fahlman’s frowny face, however, came to express sadness rather than earnestness.

To the critics who lament that good writers needn’t express themselves with pictures but with, rather, words, Fahlman responds on his university Web page. “To a large degree, I agree …,” he writes. “Perhaps the email smiley face has done more to degrade our written communication than to improve it.” But, he continues, the average Internet user doesn’t have the literary skills of Shakespeare or Twain, and isn’t capable of rendering jokes as exquisitely as they. He further argues that the Internet is such a categorically different medium than traditional publishing  — one that encourages such call-and-response from readers — that to not have a way to clearly define a joke invites too much misunderstanding and chaos. “Besides,” he writes, “Shakespeare’s work is full of clichés and his spelling was atrocious.” He follows this with a smiley face 🙂

Fahlman was the first documented user of a modern-day emoticon, but he wasn’t the first to conceive such a thing. In fact, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov himself approved of the concept in 1969. When asked in an interview for The New York Times how he would rank himself among his contemporaries, he replied, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”


On this day in 1796, President George Washington‘s farewell address was printed in the Daily American Advertiser as an open letter to American citizens. The most famous of all his “speeches,” it was never actually spoken; a week after its publication in this Philadelphia newspaper, it was reprinted in papers all over the country.

The address was a collaborative effort that took Washington months to finalize, incorporating the notes that James Madison had prepared four years prior when Washington intended to retire after his first term, as well as numerous edits from Alexander Hamilton and a critique from John Jay. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were accustomed to writing collectively; together they had published the Federalist Papers, 85 newspaper articles published throughout the 13 states to introduce and explain their proposal for a Constitution.

Now only eight years old, the Constitution was in danger, Washington feared, of falling prey to the whims of popular sentiment. In 6,086 words, his address seeks to encourage the nation to respect and maintain the Constitution, warning that a party system — not yet the governmental standard operating procedure — would reduce the nation to infighting. He urged Americans to relinquish their personal or geographical interests for the good of the national interest, warning that “designing men” would try to distract them from their larger common views by highlighting their smaller, local differences. “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection,” he wrote.

Washington also feared interference by foreign governments, and as such extolled the benefits of a stable public credit to be used sparingly, recommending avoiding debt by “cultivating peace” and “by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned.” Although he conceded that “the execution of these maxims” — or, in layman’s terms, balancing the budget — was the responsibility of the government, Washington wagged a finger at individual citizens too, reminding them that “it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant …”


On this day in 1995The Washington Post and The New York Times jointly published “Industrial Society and Its Future,” the 35,000-word manifesto of the Unabomber, a serial mail bomber who’d promised to renounce terrorism if either paper published his writing in its entirety.

The publication came after 17 years of violence from the Unabomber, a campaign he waged against modern industrialization under the name “Unabomb,” using the plural pronoun “we” to suggest a group effort. But the FBI knew the terrorist was a single white male with ties to Chicago, Salt Lake City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and they hoped that distributing his writing would help catch him.

Criticized as capitulating to a criminal and decried as setting a dangerous precedent for copycats, the newspapers were vindicated when a social worker named David Kaczynski read the Manifesto and noticed similarities between it and letters his brother, Ted, had published decades earlier. Estranged from his recluse sibling for a decade, David still wished to remain anonymous when he tipped the FBI off to the Unabomber’s possible identity, but the truth was leaked as Kaczynski’s remote cabin was raided and the FBI discovered evidence that Ted Kaczynski was, in fact, the Unabomber. After paying off his own legal bills resulting from the case, David donated the remainder of his $1 million reward to the families of his brother’s victims.


Today is the birthday of author William Golding (books by this author), born in Newquay, Cornwall, England (1911). His first novel is also his best-known book: Lord of the Flies (1954), written while Golding was working as a schoolteacher. It was rejected 21 times before a new editor at Faber & Faber of London took a chance on it. It didn’t sell well at first, but enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, and is now one of the most frequently taught (and challenged) books in schools and colleges. Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1983.


On this date in 1940, Polish soldier Witold Pilecki allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis. He was a captain in the Polish resistance, and he wanted to find out what was going on near the town of Auschwitz. His superior officers believed it was just a German camp for prisoners of war, but Pilecki suspected that something else was happening there. He hounded his commanders until they finally gave him the go-ahead to join a crowd of Polish citizens who were being rounded up by Nazi soldiers. Pilecki, who left behind a wife and two young children, was taken to Auschwitz along with the others, just as he’d planned. He was given a number — 4859 — and soon realized the true purpose of the camp.

Pilecki remained there for nearly three years, during which time he smuggled out detailed reports of the atrocities with the camp’s dirty laundry. His reports of gas chambers and ovens to dispose of human remains were so horrific that no one in the Polish underground believed him. And even though his reports made their way to the British and the Americans, suggesting ways to liberate the camp, still nothing was done. Meanwhile, he did what he could to arrange escapes for his fellow inmates.

Finally, in 1943, frustrated with the lack of action, Pilecki faked a case of typhus and escaped from the hospital. After the war, the Polish underground recruited him to spy on the country’s new occupiers, the Soviets. But he was captured by the Polish Communist regime and executed for espionage, in 1948. His story was suppressed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The "Old Friends" tour featuring Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky, and Garrison Keillor commences Wednesday, February 20th with a run of Minnesota dates! Click the links below for info on each.

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now joins the other triple-initial people, like MLK and JFK and FDR and FAO Schwarz, and AOC is a good code name for her. It’s got electricity (AC), a hint of command (C.O.), and a sense of exhilaration (O!). Her story is irresistible: a 29-year-old bartender going to Congress. Of course she’s new and she’ll need to learn a few things. 1. The press is not your friend. 2. Public attention is fleeting. 3. There is manure on the sidewalk: don’t step in it. But (4) you have a fabulous smile, never lose it, it’s your best weapon. We have all the cautious mumblers and harrumphers in dark suits that we need. Time to bring in the sopranos. I saw a picture of her in the Capitol walking down a marble hallway among grim-faced men, an enormous smile on her face. Bernie, your replacement has arrived.

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child. I had 18 aunts. They were more interesting than the uncles. Women told stories; men issued wide-ranging proclamations. Mrs. Shaver and Mrs. Moehlenbrock loved teaching; they ran a tight ship but I looked forward to school and when I stood and pledged allegiance, I was pledging myself to them. Mr. Lewis was scary and exercised power in cruel and willful ways. I was prepared to welcome a woman president by 1952, long before the rest of the country.

I’ve been a guy long enough to know something about the gender and what we want is to be loved. The APA left that out of their study. We’re capable of being jerks, God knows (He really does!), but we are emotionally needy. We are far from being the solo Pathfinder or Deerslayer of Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Chuck Schumer peering over his granny glasses wants to be loved. Barack basks in adoration; it’s one of his problems. And Number 45 Himself, the ultimate ugly American, a guy who whenever he opens his mouth you see big balloons of ignorance and arrogance and self-pity — he told the New York Times he thought the paper should be nicer to him because he is, after all, from New York. No president ever talked like that for the record: “I think you ought to be nice to me.” It’s what girls used to say.

If AOC wants to reduce billionaires to 500-millionaires to pay for universal health care, she needs to make them feel good about themselves. If she attacks them for having destroyer-sized yachts and six homes and being unaware of how to use a vacuum or a dishwasher, they will feel bad and try to crush her. Billionaires are susceptible to beautiful women. Look at Jeff Bezos. If AOC can keep that big smile of hers shining, she can confiscate five of the homes and the confiscatee will shrug and accept it. The townhouse in London was hardly used, ditto the chalet in Provence, and the Jamaican estate had such a small airstrip it was scary to land the Gulfstream. Pacific Palisades will be missed but 10,000 sq. ft. on the 65th floor overlooking Central Park — one can make do.

Men are captivated by women and yearn for their approval. There is no sound so sweet to me as the sound of my wife in the next room laughing at something I wrote. The other day I saw a line in a poem by Marie Howe that twanged my heart. A deliveryman comes with a package and speaks to her in a Jamaican patois and smiles—

A smile so radiant that
Re-entering the apartment I’m
A young woman again, and
The sweetness of the men I’ve loved walks in
Through the closed door.

A woman who looks back at the men in her life and thinks sweetly of them: this, to me, is beautiful beyond words. A man could almost live off that. My wife laughed six times at this column. If you didn’t, be glad we’re not married.

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Did you know that when Douglas MacArthur became a general, he hired his own public relations firm to promote his image back home? Did you know Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream? And McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is known as the City of Palms but also has a good deal of mesquite and deciduous trees. And the McCarran Act prohibited the picketing of federal courthouses. You learn these things roaming around freely rather than at a table with a bunch of smarty-pants sitting behind their name cards and each with his own glass of water. But the information is out there. All you need to do is connect the dots.

My Executive Time has been crucial to me ever since I was 16 and I hit the wall in mathematics and it looked like I was headed for a career in dishwashing, but sixty years later, look what happened. The math whizzes got good jobs that turned out to be treadmills to obsolescence. New Math came in, smarter people took over, many of them from foreign countries, and now I see those old whizzes taking tickets at parking ramps, whereas I’ve become a huge success. People stop me on the street all the time and say, “You have changed my life. You say things I’ve been thinking for years. How do you speak for the common man the way you do?”

The secret is Executive Time. For six hours a day, I remove myself from so-called experts and wise guys who think they got all the answers and I trust in my own instincts. I am smarter about most things than people are who’ve been studying them all their lives. I can run circles around those people.

The only math I did today was to tote up the tip on my steak sandwich, 10 percent. Just move the decimal point. The waiter wept. “A thousand thanks, sir. I have student loans to pay off, from fifteen years working for my Ph.D. in brain surgery.” The guy is an international authority on the multifocal cerebral infarcts along the left palpebral fissure of the lapsarian cortex and he’s warming up my coffee.

People ask if I’m going to run for president. I tell them, “I’m looking into it.” It looks like a good job to me. The helicopter service is incredible, there are beautiful motorcades, and wherever you go, all the microphones are pointed at you. Highly educated journalists, trying to catch every word you say.

The only thing keeping me from running is the fact that I’m Canadian. I walked across the border in northern Minnesota, no wall, nothing but an ordinary barbed wire fence, you just duck between the top and middle wires and you’re in. I learned to pronounce “about” as “about” and not “aboot,” and I was all set. There are millions of us here, escapees from harsh winter and socialized medicine. I bought my passport in Buffalo for $50. Nobody can tell except that I’m a little bowlegged from playing hockey and I get teary-eyed when I hear “O Canada.”

I settled in Minneapolis and joined the Mondale gang that controlled the supply of coffee coming into the state. He sold decaffeinated coffee to Lutherans, which made them passive and inattentive and that was the secret of his power. We took a cut of the collection and owned the green Jell-O concession. Him and me were all set.

So the phone rings and this lady says, “You can’t say ‘him and me.’” And I say, “I just said it and I meant it.” There are people like her in Minnesota who make a person feel small and that’s why Executive Time is so important: you get away from those people. For six hours a day, it’s just me and my hair. It’s beautiful hair and it’s intelligent. It speaks very quietly. It says, “Stick with me and you’ll be amazed where we wind up.”

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

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Historic Holmes Theatre. 7:30 p.m.

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at A Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 24, 2019

Sunday

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

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Crooners. Shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

It’s the birthday of George Washington (1732), whose inaugural address was the shortest in history: 133 words long, and it took him just 90 seconds to deliver.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Communist Manifesto, which proclaimed that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” was first published on this day in 1848.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

It was on this day in 1877 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” premiered in Moscow. It was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, and it got bad reviews.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

It’s the birthday of writer Amy Tan (1952), who wrote a book of short stories in the span of about four months that became the bestseller “The Joy Luck Club.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

Originally broadcast from Winona State University in Minnesota. With special guests, legendary blues pianist and singer Marcia Ball (pictured), plus the eclectic and electric Cajuns, BeauSoleil.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (1931), whose mother always sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. The exhibit featured works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and more.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

On this date in 2001, a working draft of the human genome was published. Scientists had expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes, but we have only about 20,000.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

For Valentine’s Day, a few excerpts of love letters from famous authors, and a poem by Connie Wanek, “First Love.”

Read More
Writing

What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Read More

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Read More

Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

Read More

A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

Read More

Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

Read More

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