The Writer’s Almanac for September 26, 2018

In the Middle by Barbara Crooker, from Word Press. © 1998. Used with permission from the author. (buy now)

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.


It’s the birthday of novelist Jane Smiley, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1949), who said, “A novelist is someone who has volunteered to be a representative of literature and move it forward a generation. That is all.” When she was 11 years old, she loved The Hound of the Baskervilles and she wanted to know why it was so good, so she read it over and over until she could figure out exactly how the plot and characters were constructed. She went on to write over a dozen novels.

Her most recent novels Some Luck (2014), Early Warning (2015), and Golden Age (2015) comprise The Last Hundred Years trilogy, which covers one hundred years of an Iowa family’s history.


The poet Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot (books by this author), was born on this day in 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the first 18 years of his life.

As a young man, Eliot was intelligent, hard-working, and intellectually eclectic. And as an undergraduate at Harvard University, he managed to finish both his undergraduate work and master’s degree in just four years. At college, Eliot began writing poetry and was something of a dandy — an Anglophile with a personal style of fussy, studied carelessness; his personality witty and precise and his speech free of slang or preciousness. Eliot finished his education as a graduate student at Harvard, studying philosophy under visiting professor Bertrand Russell and completing his Ph.D. thesis in 1914.

Before defending his thesis, Eliot took advantage of a travel scholarship to Germany, followed by a year at Oxford University in England that turned into the rest of his life. The outbreak of World War I prevented him from returning to complete his doctoral defense, and without a Ph.D. in hand, Eliot could no longer consider securing a teaching position with a university and so turned his intention to poetry, editing, and writing essays.

In England, Eliot became acquainted with the American expatriate writer Ezra Pound, who became Eliot’s devoted mentor and a sensitive critic of his work. Eliot shared with Pound a long poem he’d begun in college and finished three years before, which Pound critiqued and then encouraged Eliot to publish. Eliot did, and in 1915, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, launching Eliot into the midst of literary modernism.

That same year, at a dance in London, Eliot was introduced to the pretty, vivacious English governess and writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was repressed and shy and Vivienne seemed to jolt him. After just three months, the two were wed in a register office, completely ill-prepared for life together and with no idea how or where they would live.

Eliot’s former professor, Bertrand Russell, generously offered to help the young couple and the Eliots first settled into Bertram Russell’s flat in London, Russell giving his financial support as well as introducing Tom to other writers and intellectuals, helping the young poet establish a place with the British intellectual set and even bankrolling the pair for a time after they’d moved out.

Almost immediately after marrying, the Eliots discovered they were incompatible, and it seems that Mrs. Eliot began an affair with her husband’s former professor, Bertrand Russell, which Mr. Eliot either tacitly condoned or about which he remained remarkably obtuse. The strain of the Eliot-Russell triangle took its toll on the couple, most especially Vivienne, and Tom found proximity to his emotionally messy wife to be extremely vexing and responded by withdrawing even further.

Eliot continued publishing, establishing himself as a critic in the 1920s with a series of articles for the Times as well as his essay collection Sacred Wood. In 1921, exhausted from poor health and suffering from overwork and increasing marital difficulties, Eliot had a nervous breakdown, took a break from his day job, and went to a sanatorium to recuperate. It was there that he finished his next masterpiece, The Waste Land, which in a line from Dante’s Divine Comedy, he dedicated to Ezra Pound — “the better craftsman.” The Waste Land drew from a wide range of literary modes taken from many of the writers Eliot admired: Dante, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Elizabethans and Jacobeans and metaphysical writers like Donne; it was juxtaposition and contrast, modern but reflecting archaic aesthetics, and was considered by conservative reviewers to be some kind of literary hoax. The Waste Land called on everything from jazz and nursery rhymes to bits of foreign languages and footnotes, reproducing in both its form and content the jumble of the modern world that Eliot was attempting to describe.

The Eliots’ marriage continued to deteriorate. Vivienne Eliot had long been plagued by ill health, from a childhood tubercular infection in her arm that required repeated surgeries to menstrual troubles that caused her great embarrassment as well as migraines, mood swings, and fainting spells. Before her marriage, her mother had intervened and sought treatment for the worst of her daughter’s problems and Vivienne was dosed with sedating bromides, probably indicating she’d be diagnosed with hysteria — the common term of the day for “difficult” woman. Vivienne’s emotional health was clearly strained, and by the 1930s Virginia Woolf, who was part of the Eliots’ social circle, was quoted in a T.S. Eliot biography calling Vivienne a “biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity … bag of ferrets” that Tom wore around his neck.

The anxiety within his marriage was more than Tom could apparently bear and, in 1933, while on an extended visit to the United States, he began the process of legal separation, dispatching his solicitor to draw up the required documents, take them to Vivienne, and also break the news to her. Although he never actually divorced her, from that time Tom’s overriding desire would be to avoid all contact with his wife and to sever all connection to the life he had shared with her. Vivienne, for her part, refused to accept Tom’s desertion. She grew panicky and depressed, and frantic to appear emotionally stable while her behavior by turns only became more bizarre, until 1938 when she was found wandering London at five o’clock in the morning, confused, apparently asking passersby if her husband had been beheaded. Vivienne’s brother had her committed to an institution, where she spent the remaining decade of her life.

For his part, Tom continued to work as an editor and publish work — poetry, essays, and drama — and won both the Nobel Prize in literature as well as the Order of the British Empire in 1948. In 1957, Eliot remarried, and on January 4, 1965, he died of emphysema and his ashes taken to rest in the English village from which his ancestors had long ago emigrated to America.


Martin Heidegger (books by this author), the German philosopher and literary critic who has been called one of the most original and seminal thinkers of the 20th century as well as “a purveyor of literal nonsense,” was born on this day in 1889 in Messkirch, Germany. His was a lower-class family, his father a sexton, and it has been frequently noted that Martin Heidegger is the only philosopher of his century to have been of purely peasant stock.

Heidegger began his college education as a Jesuit novice, but he was ultimately rejected as a seminary candidate presumably due to health reasons and what he would later call a psychosomatic heart condition. He finished at a university in Freiburg, where he read in theology, mathematics, and philosophy. Following the completion of his dissertation, Heidegger got married in 1917, joined the German army where he thrived but was soon discharged for health reasons, had two children, and began teaching.

Through World War II, Heidegger was a keen supporter of what he called the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement, declaring that the philosophy of history had led him to follow it. Following the war, he was forbidden by the French occupying forces in Germany to teach for six years, until a tribunal ruled him a Nazi-sympathizer only and he was allowed to return as a limited lecturer at Freiburg.

Heidegger refused to recant his sympathy for Nazi philosophy or repent of his party membership, and in the 1950s, he was still reprinting lectures he’d given in the 1930s on the greatness of the Nazis, once telling a former student that he was not going to indulge in the “luxury” of apologizing for himself. Whether Heidegger had been merely opportunistic, a run-of-the-mill racist — he was apparently given to racist remarks — or a fully committed Nazi is still a matter for argument, and it is no surprise that the extent to which Heidegger’s philosophy and written works involve Nazism is still controversial.

Heidegger’s main philosophical interest was ontology — the study of being. His most important work, the 1927 Being and Time, asks the fundamental question “What is it, to be?” explaining that to even ask the question implies that at some level the answer is already understood, exploring the objects and artifacts that have come to humanity from the past, and dissecting the experiences of angst and mortality.

Because of his dealing with themes such as the end of human existence, death, nothingness, and authenticity of experience, many have come to associate Heidegger with existentialism, and his influence is certainly seen in the work of French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. Heidegger, however, resisted the existentialist label.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

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.

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December 16, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

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Today is the birthday of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863) who said, “My sufferings…are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

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It’s the birthday of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911), who delivered his acceptance speech in Arabic when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

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This episode’s got five concertinas, four melodeons, three button boxes, two tin whistles, and a partridge in a pear tree. Guests include Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Boys of the Lough (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

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“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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Writing

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

Read More

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.

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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.

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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

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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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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