The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, April 6, 2020


The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in New York City
by Julie Danho

In case there’s a line, I show up at seven
but the man at the counter says the cookies
won’t be ready until eleven and by then
I’ll be on the train, nearly halfway back
to Providence. He and the dozen people
behind me are waiting, so I quickly choose
a ham croissant and a blueberry muffin
glittering like a hotel lobby chandelier.
The shop’s a dab of yellow on the block,
its only seats along the front window
where I sit and look at bleary people stopped
at the bodega across the street, touching
apples and mangos until they find the ones
most untouched. With my first bite,
the croissant comes undone, its shawl
falling to the floor. I break off the peak
of the muffin and hear the sugar overfill
the valleys of my back teeth. I’m trying not
to think about how it must taste, the best
chocolate chip cookie in New York City,
how big, how warm, how it would’ve
collapsed in my mouth, traveled my blood,
made wild pinwheels of my cells.
How much time have I lost
hunting perfection? Once, before cell phones,
before the days when cars couldn’t linger
outside the airport doors, my plane was
delayed on the runway for four hours,
and my husband, before he was my husband,
waited for me in his cramped Plymouth
battered from years of lake effect snow.
He just waited, reading a book, turning on
the car every so often to listen to the radio.
When I finally arrived, he was surprised
that I thought he’d be gone. He said
no one asked why he was there so long
or what it was he was waiting for.

 

“The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in New York City” by Julie Danho from Those Who Keep Arriving. Silverfish Review Press © 2020. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Today is believed to be the birthday of the Shoshone woman Sacajawea, born in Idaho (sometime around 1789). [Several other possible birth dates have also been proposed.] She was kidnapped at age 10 by the Hidatsa tribe, sold into slavery, and bought by a French-Canadian trapper who made her one of his two wives. When Lewis and Clark hired the trapper to guide them to the Pacific, Sacajawea — a teenager with her two-month-old baby on her back — was part of the package. She was the only woman to accompany the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Officially she acted as an interpreter since she could speak half a dozen Indian languages. But she also knew which plants were edible, and she saved the explorers’ records when their boat overturned. In his notes, William Clark pointed out that tribes were inclined to believe that their party was friendly when they saw Sacajawea because a war party would never travel with a woman, especially one with a baby.

When the trip was over, Sacajawea received nothing. Her trapper husband got $500.33 and 320 acres of land. She died on December 22, 1812, of a “putrid fever,” according to Clark’s records. She was 23. Eight months later, Clark legally adopted her two children — the boy who had been a baby on the expedition, Jean Baptiste, and an infant daughter, Lisette.


It’s the birthday of country songwriter and singer Merle Haggard, born in Bakersfield, California (1937). The first song he wrote was “Branded Man,” about the life of an ex-con. He was still on parole when he wrote it. He died in 2016 after releasing more than 600 songs, 40 of which were No. 1 hits.


On this day in 1895Oscar Wilde (books by this author) was arrested in room 118 of the Cadogan Hotel in London. He was arrested for “gross indecency” for sodomy.

The day before he had lost a libel case he’d brought against his lover’s father, John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess had called Wilde a sodomite, and Wilde wanted to humiliate him and show off his own wit by taking him to court. Wilde was the one who famously said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

The whole thing backfired. Wilde lost the libel case, and Douglas gathered enough evidence to have him arrested. Still, it took two trials to convict Wilde, though it helped that the prosecution paid Wilde’s former lovers to testify.

He was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He walked six hours a day in 29-minute increments, with five-minute breaks, until he’d covered a distance equal to a 6,000-foot incline. He slept on a wooden plank, and for the first several months he was not allowed books, writing utensils, or paper.

When he finally got them, he wrote the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an allegory of his downfall. It was published anonymously until its seventh printing when Wilde finally told his publisher it was OK to add his name to it.

 

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

How we live in these troubled times

The world is falling apart but my niece has sent me pictures of her, her friends, people from her church, cleaning up along Lake Street in Minneapolis, something that distinguishes a Minneapolis riot from one in Chicago or Philadelphia: when the arsonists leave, the brigades of nice people come in to tidy up.

Say what you will, but this is our neighborhood and we don’t accept trashiness, we believe that clean streets, nice lawns, well-kept houses, bring out the goodness inherent in humanity. My aunts believed that, my mother, my grandma. Men with incendiary devices come through and torch businesses, a library, a police station, but the women will have the last word, count on it.

I have learned this during the almost three months of quarantine: woman rules the roost and man is a detriment to be tolerated. We’ve been isolating in a two-bedroom apartment and she has gotten very strict about squalor. She holds up a pair of black underwear she found on the couch. It is a large pair with a slit in front. I weigh 220 pounds, she weighs half of that. “Whose is this?” she asks, rhetorically.

She knows that I, like other men, have strong latent bachelor farmer tendencies. I set something down where it doesn’t belong — a magazine on the floor by the toilet — and minutes later, you’ve got papers strewn on the dining room table, a sinkful of dirty dishes, bedsprings in the front yard and an old rusted-out Chevy up on blocks, a refrigerator and two rusty sinks in tall weeds. It starts with one magazine on the floor and your life descends into chaos. Without a woman to hold up the underwear and say, “Is this yours?” it’s all over, goodbye Information Age, we’re back to Bronze.

She is tough. Man is a hunter: give me a rock and I’ll go out and bring home my kill and skin it and roast it over a fire. She leans toward veganism. So my meat ration has been cut to a tenth of what it once was. I used to travel for business and wake up in a hotel, having hung my breakfast order on the doorknob the night before, and in comes the waiter with coffee, an 8 oz. top sirloin, two eggs fried over easy, a breakfast that prepares a man to go out and vanquish the Visigoths. No more. In my vegan prison, it’s wheat cereal with some blueberries. She loves lentils, quinoa, green leafy things, stuff that cattle eat.

“It’s good for you,” she says and of course she’s right and that’s the irritating part. She wants me to do sit-ups and jumping jacks and stretching, she encourages me to join her in yoga with her YouTube instructor Adriene. I don’t do yoga, I’m a guy. Some male persons may do it but guys don’t. What’s His Name doesn’t do yoga with Melania and neither does Joe Biden with Jill, and if either one were to be photographed in black tights doing Ardha Chandrasana, he would no longer be eligible to become Leader of the Free World. The LOFW plays golf. He doesn’t kneel or squat, he swings a club and sends a missile flying with deadly accuracy.

Before the lockdown I went to an office and was consulted by employees who offered their suggestions, which, wisely, I took, with minor revisions. I wore a suit, sometimes a tie. I had a role. Now my usefulness is limited to reaching the copper boiler on the top shelf and bringing it down and then, later, putting it back up. Height is my main asset, not experience. Sometimes I unload the dishwasher. Once in a while, if the sky turns black and bolts of lightning appear to the south and the wind moans in the weatherstripping and she becomes anxious, she turns to me for manly reassurance, though I know less about meteorology than the average medieval peasant did, but I put my hand on her shoulder and say, “It’s okay. Only a storm.”

And that is what makes quarantine bearable, putting my hand on her shoulder. We’ve been locked up together for a long time and whenever I walk into a room and see her, I put my hand on her shoulder, her back, I kiss her hair, I know this woman by heart. For her sake, I eat lentils and quinoa instead of muskrat or wild boar. She runs the house and I get to put my hand on her shoulder. It’s not a bad deal.

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

We spent lives heavily in Vietnam and lost the war and now we wonder, “What in God’s name was it for?” Vietnam is a major trading partner, cruise ships stop in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. My nephew lives in Hanoi and works in a bank there. I could call him and FaceTime if I could figure out the time difference.

I can imagine that FaceTime, YouTube, Instagram, Google, by making the world smaller, might lead to an epoch of relative international peace, and Memorial Day might become a museum piece, and if so, we might consider a Marital Memorial Day, when we honor our divorced and bring some peace to our personal lives. The current divorce rate is around 40% and that is a sorrowful thing, and just as the VFW honors the war dead, knowing how easily the living and the dead might have traded places, so we should acknowledge that marriages crash and burn for reasons not understood and blame should be withheld and peace restored.

To live all the days of your life with your best-informed critic is a heroic venture and it’s worth honoring. Respect your failures and you will more fully enjoy your success.

The MMD should be held in the spring and there should be a lighthearted lunch with exes and their families. You sit next to your ex and toast each other’s health and catch up on the latest and recognize that you launched a romance out of hopeful idealism and though it crashed, the impulse was admirable.

You’re done with the yelling, the door slamming, the lawyers. Sit down and be decent, look each other in the eye, forgive. This would be more valuable in the real life of our country than the patriotic speech and Taps and the rifle salute.

The pandemic has brought husbands and wives closer together than ever and in some states, angry men have stormed state capitols demanding that the bonds be loosened, even at the risk of death. In quarantine, men quickly realize that they married women who possess powerful corrective impulses — who rush to clean up things even before they’re spilled, who straighten and adjust and set things right that men have left askew. Women will edit your sentences as you speak, and if you pause, she will finish the sentence for you. Men are grateful for women’s corrections but it can be exhausting to be held to high standards 24/7 and so, in order to escape supervision, men take up fishing. Fishing makes no sense whatsoever, to go to great trouble and expense to catch inferior game fish when for a fraction of the dough, you can buy salmon or tuna and broil it briefly and have something fabulous. That’s why so few women fish. Men fish because women don’t. For the same reason, they go hunting, go to blues clubs, sit in crowded sports bars and play video games. These things have been shut down by the pandemic. That is why armed men have threatened the woman governor of Michigan.

A Marital Memorial Day would be a small step toward civility in this anger-riven country. The country needs to calm down and learn to speak gently. Once we do MMD, then perhaps Democrats and Republicans will be able to talk to each other. If you can make peace with a well-informed critic, what’s the harm in talking to an ignorant one?

Some self-isolating thoughts about hair

Jenny cut my hair yesterday out on the balcony in the sun and she kept laughing as she did, which doesn’t instill confidence to hear your haircutter laugh, but at least the hair stays out of my eyes and the worst part (she says) is in back, and we’re in isolation so who cares, and at my age I’m not applying for a job, so it’s rather immaterial. If I wanted to do something wild with my hair, dye it deep purple with bright green stripes, now would be the time to do it, but I lack the motivation to be colorful. I’m a writer and an observer and you can’t see the world clearly if other people are staring at you: it’s see or be seen.

Hair was crucial in the 10th grade, 1958, when you had greasers like Trump and jocks with crewcuts and farmboys had shaggy hair and we cool guys aimed for an Ivy League look. My dad cut his sons’ hair and he was a carpenter and not so keen about fashion. I told him, “Short on top but with a part, a little longer in back.” Coolness was the point of it, blue button-down shirts, khaki pants, loafers, white socks, but now I have no clue about what’s cool, if anything is, and coolness is no longer a factor in my life. I’m old. The first section of the paper I turn to is the obituary section. People I know keep showing up there.

I went away to the U aiming to be a writer so I majored in English, not knowing how much I’d come to hate it. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and my teachers were his mortician. The English Department was across the street from the Institute of Technology and we writers loved to look down on the engineers. They wore the wrong color shirts with plastic pocket protectors and high-water pants with belts hitched way up under their rib cage and half-rim horn-rimmed glasses and short nerdy hair whereas we had long majestic hair and we wrote dark incomprehensible poetry. If I ever felt miserable about having to write a paper about Dryden or Coleridge or Milton, I just crossed the street and mingled with engineers, their slide rules in a holster on their belt, a race of dullards without a single amazing and original thought, and it gave me the arrogance I was looking for.

I think of this now as I consider what engineers have given the world, such as this little gizmo the size of half a sandwich that is always near me, a telephone that is also a camera, encyclopedia, newspaper, calendar, compass, weather monitor, phone book, and twenty other things I’m not aware of. Quiet studious men from the world of numbers changed the world in some wonderful ways. Bill Gates does not appear to spend a great deal of time worrying about his hair. Mark Zuckerberg has hair like a skullcap. Facebook is my link to family and friends. The nerds who invented Google gave a great gift us old people who forgot what “postmodern” means and can’t remember the year Rod Carew set a record for stealing home base and Google will find it for you: he stole home seventeen times. Seven times in 1969 alone.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an enormous year in my life. I was 27 and had a baby boy and needed to get serious and instead of finishing a novel that nobody would want, I got a job in radio doing the early morning shift and I shifted from tragic self-awareness to humor because that’s what people needed on a dark winter morning and that was when I started to feel useful and that’s when you find your vocation. And hair has nothing to do with it.

I write this on a laptop hooked up to a printer with an instruction manual written by engineers for other engineers, people who whizzed through college courses that to me were a solid brick wall, so it’s unreadable for me. Imagine if all your cookbooks were in French and you had to call one of your few Francophones in order to make pancakes. But never mind. Thank you, Nerdland, for the laptop and the phone. I could live without them but it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I apologize for looking down on you for your bad hair.

A few words while I wait for her to come in

I married a perfectionist and am glad for it especially during this pandemonium or pandora or veranda or whatever it is we’re going through these days, even my dream life is clearer, more detailed than in normal times, which now are only a memory, those evenings when we ate dinner in a crowded restaurant and sat in the tenth row of a theater and packed into a crowded train to go home.

She is a violinist, dedicated since her teen years to perfection, practicing many hours a day so that she could play in a string section and not stand out as an individual. I am a struggling writer for whom individual identity is crucial. She sat in an orchestra wearing black like all the others, suppressing the urge to wear a tiara with flashing red and green pulsating lights. I sat in a café, in a red T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans, boots, smoking a Gauloise, a Panama hat on the table, writing on a yellow legal pad, something original. It was a café (actually a cafeteria) patronized by engineering students and I was the only Gauloise/Panama person there. The others lived in a world of correct answers and I lived in a forest of wild surmise.

Had I not married the violinist, I’d be in a hospital, trying to breathe, having refused to self-isolate because I hate the term, I prefer the term “drift.” But thanks to her attention to detail, we live with our daughter in a clean apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and haven’t ventured outdoors, except to step out on the balcony, for two months. She is more sociable than I — most musicians are, having a common exclusive language — and so she misses the street life more than I do, but she studied up on the situation — a strange and dangerous contagion, an elderly and careless husband — and saw what needed to be done. And so I find myself in a quiet room with an empty schedule, an ideal life for a writer.

If I taught Creative Writing now, I wouldn’t be encouraging wild originality, I’d be teaching people to keep an orderly house and a spotless kitchen, hang up your clothes, and defend against interruption. A cluttered desk is a prison cell; a life of confusion is a dungeon.

The argument these days between Opening the Doors and Maintaining Quarantine is the argument between ignorance and knowledge and ordinarily I’d go with ignorance but I have a manager who is in for the long haul. She misses her work, playing in a pit, two feet away from two other players, a soprano and a tenor onstage singing Puccini passionately and projecting thousands of saliva droplets with every fricative, but she knows that people shouldn’t die from opera, only in it, so life is rearranged.

And so, when she wakes up in the morning and appears in the doorway of my quiet room, I hold out my arms and she sits on my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. We live day by day. All the big bets are off. The calendar is empty. The canvas chairs on the balcony that I was always too busy to sit in now have occupants. I look at the planter with the herbs my violinist has planted, an orchestra of mint and marjoram, cilantro, basil and rosemary, who will wind up in a stir-fry or what we in Minnesota used to call “hotdish” before we went to college. It’s the middle of May, a chilly spring, you can count the warm days on your left hand. But if the sun shines, even the low 50s are good enough.

Old man in a black winter coat looking out on the rooftops of New York, and a slim blond with violin scars on her jaw, and we talk about the boxes of useless unused stuff in closets that should be dealt with, and it brings to mind a fit of shelf-clearing years ago, an old unread book I opened and found, pressed between the leaves, a piece of yellowed handstitching: “Elizabeth Crandall is my name And America is my nation. Providence is my home And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, if this you see, remember me, when I am quite forgotten. 1845.” A fellow writer, long gone, and the thought isn’t original but the stitching is perfect. The perfection is stunning.

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How we live in these troubled times

The world is falling apart but my niece has sent me pictures of her, her friends, people from her church, cleaning up along Lake Street in Minneapolis, something that distinguishes a Minneapolis riot from one in Chicago or Philadelphia: when the arsonists leave, the brigades of nice people come in to tidy up.

Say what you will, but this is our neighborhood and we don’t accept trashiness, we believe that clean streets, nice lawns, well-kept houses, bring out the goodness inherent in humanity. My aunts believed that, my mother, my grandma. Men with incendiary devices come through and torch businesses, a library, a police station, but the women will have the last word, count on it.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Friday, May 29, 2020

The city I love is burning, people living in dread, as the result of having tolerated a police force that has its own code and doesn’t live by our ideals.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, May 28, 2020

So much is strange in this lockdown but the overriding fact, to a Minnesotan, is that it’s summer at last, we’re eating outdoors, and we’re all in this together.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A blissful day in isolation, part of it on the terrace snoozing in the sun, mostly indoors working on the novel.

Read More

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

Read More

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I used to fly around the country doing shows and staying in nice hotels and now, thanks to the plague, I get to observe my true love close up.

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We have dinner and hold hands and say table grace, something we never did regularly before but quarantine needs rituals and prayer is a good one.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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