The Writer’s Almanac for September 8, 2018


“Mercy” from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,—
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,—
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice.


It was on this day in 1892 that an early version of the Pledge of Allegiance appeared in The Youth’s Companion magazine. It read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. The novel begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”


It was on this day in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his sculpture David. The project was first imagined more than 30 years earlier, in 1463, when the sculptor Agostino di Duccio accepted a commission to sculpt a biblical figure for one of the buttresses of the Santa Maria del Fiore, a cathedral in Florence. Duccio was given a block of marble more than 19 feet high, but he gave up after a rough attempt at the feet and legs. The commission was passed to another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who also gave up.

The piece was forgotten for a while, and the hunk of marble sat in a courtyard until 1501, when the Church authorities revived their project. It was about that time that they started referring to the sculpture as David. The Church settled on awarding the commission to 26-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo was undaunted by the huge piece of marble, even thought it had the mistakes of the two previous sculptors already carved into it. He began sculpting in the fall of 1501 and finished less than two years later, in the summer of 1503. A group of artists — including Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci — assembled to decide where to move the statue, since the idea of using it as a buttress for the cathedral seemed less practical now that the marble was weakened from years of exposure to the elements, and because the statue was 17 feet tall and weighed several tons. It took a huge effort to move David to its new location outside the Palazzo della Signoria. The diarist Luca Landucci wrote about the David, which he called ‘the giant,’ in his diary: “During the night stones were thrown at the giant to injure it, therefore it was necessary to keep watch over it. It went very slowly, being bound in an erect position, and suspended so that it did not touch the ground with its feet. There were immensely strong beams, constructed with great skill; and it took four days to reach the Piazza […] It was moved along by more than 40 men. Beneath it there were 14 greased beams, which were changed from hand to hand; and they labored till the 8th July, 1504, to place it on the ringhiera.”


It’s the birthday of Ann Beattie (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1947). It was in grad school that she showed some short stories she’d been writing to one of her professors, the writer John O’Hara, and he started sending her stories out for publication. After a few acceptances, he suggested she try submitting to The New Yorker. She got an encouraging rejection letter, so she kept submitting. It took her 22 tries before The New Yorker took one of her stories, but it wasn’t so bad because it had taken her only a few hours to write each of those 22 stories.

She published both her first collection, Distortions, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. Her most recent collection, The Accomplished Guest, came out in 2017.

Ann Beattie said, “People forget years and remember moments.” 


It’s the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious (books by this author), born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide.

Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night and wrote it in 10 weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a best-seller, the locals in her town were horrified. It was banned in libraries across the country, and the public library in her hometown didn’t have a copy until the 1990s.

After her death, the book was made into a TV series that became the first ever long-running primetime soap opera, and all primetime serials since then have been based on its example.


It was on this day in 1920 that the first transcontinental U.S. airmail service began, from New York to San Francisco.

The Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, but it took a while for them to convince the U.S. government that airplanes were a technology worth pursuing. The brothers approached the government three separate times in 1905 hoping to interest them as a customer, but to no avail. The military finally agreed to purchase a plane from the Wrights in 1908, but it crashed during flight trials, killing the military observer and injuring Orville Wright. A year later, the flight trials resumed, and this time the government actually purchased the plane.

Over the next couple of years, the public became more interested in aviation and its potential beyond military use. In 1911, the Post Office Department expressed interest in the new technology. That fall, an aviator named Earle Ovington was sworn in as the first U.S. airmail pilot moments before taking off in his monoplane from Garden City on Long Island. He had a bag stuffed full of letters and postcards. He flew three miles to Mineola — also on Long Island — and when he saw the signal from the postmaster, he dropped the bag of mail from the airplane. The bag exploded when it hit the ground, scattering mail everywhere.

For several years, the Post Office Department sponsored more experimental flights across the country, mostly at county fairs or aviation events. The flights were successful, and the Post Office asked Congress for funding to try airmail service. They finally agreed, and the first airmail flight was in 1918, with service from New York to Washington, D.C. Flights went smoothly, but the public response was lukewarm — people didn’t want to pay the higher airmail postage just for a slightly shorter trip. Airmail pilots ended up carrying a lot of letters paid with normal postage, just to fill their bags.

The Post Office decided that fast transcontinental service would be a major attraction to consumers, and built airfields that went straight west from New York. There were 15 airfields in all, beginning with New York and including Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally San Francisco. The biggest challenge was crossing the Rocky Mountains in lightweight planes. On this day in 1920, the first service went across the entire country. The experimental flight carried about 100 letters, and landed in East Oakland.

On these early airmail planes, pilots navigated by dead reckoning because their planes weren’t equipped with radios or any sort of navigational tools. One of the young pilots flying the Chicago to St. Louis route was Charles Lindbergh. Twice he encountered bad weather and had to bail out of the airplane.

It still took a while for airmail to catch on. When the first transcontinental service began, pilots flew only during the day, and then put the mail onto trains for the night. The journey from New York to San Francisco was only 22 hours faster by airmail than regular mail. In 1921, mail was flown overnight for the first time, and suddenly mail could reach from coast to coast two to three days faster. The government was impressed and awarded the Post Office Department more than $1 million for the expansion of airmail. The success of these cross-country flights paved the way for commercial airlines, which followed many of the routes designed for airmail pilots.

 


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

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.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

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.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

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

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

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

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

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of prolific horror writer Stephen King (Portland, Maine, 1947), who said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald called This Side of Paradise.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

On this day in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman 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 More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

Today is the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935), author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Curious George creator H. A. Rey, who escaped Paris on a pair of bicycles with wife and collaborator Margret Rey just before the Nazi invasion in June 1940.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. It was originally written for the Easter season, but became a Christmastime favorite.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. His friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality, and Gage became a famous patient in neuroscience.

Read More
Writing

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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?

Read More

My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

Read More

An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

Read More

Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message