The Writer’s Almanac for January 14, 2019


Snow-Flakes
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair.
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

“Snow-Flakes” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist who said, “If there’s one thing men fear, it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties” — Maureen Dowd, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1952), the youngest child of an Irish-born cop. She majored in English at Catholic University and then worked as an editorial assistant at The Washington Star, where she said she “was almost fired every day because [she] couldn’t take a decent phone message.” She finally got promoted to reporter and was writing entertaining front-page stories with quirky details when the newspaper went out of business.

Two years after she’d applied to The New York Times, Anna Quindlen, then the deputy metropolitan editor at the Times, found some writing samples of Dowd’s in a pile of old résumés and immediately offered her a job. Dowd joined the Times in 1983 as a reporter, and less than a decade later was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. Then, in 1995, she got her own column on the New York Times Op-Ed page, just the fourth woman in the newspaper’s history to do so.

In 1999, she won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, based on a series of articles she did on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. One of the articles began: “The president must not lose his job. Not over this. Certainly, Bill Clinton should be deeply ashamed of himself. He has given a bad name to adultery and lying. He has made wickedness seem pathetic, and that’s truly a sin. Kenneth Starr, all these years and all these millions later, has not delivered impeachable offenses. He has delivered a 445-page Harold Robbins novel.”

She has a reputation around Washington as being both cutthroat and irresistible. Clinton’s White House spokesman once said: “It’s hard to get mad at her for any length of time. I’d call and yell at her, and I’d always end up laughing.” One reporter called her a “sorceress,” and another said she employs “mischievous destabilization.”

In 2005, Maureen Dowd published a collection of essays called Are Men Necessary?; her title is a play on a tongue-in-cheek manual by James Thurber and E.B, White called Is Sex Necessary? She said: “I always subscribed to the Carole Lombard philosophy. ‘I live by a man’s code, designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.'”

She said, “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”


It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1949).

She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager. She started writing seriously when she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked with the novelist John Barth. She said of Barth, “The man was magic. I’d be helping in some beauty shop if it wasn’t for him.”

She published a short story called “Sisters” in The New Yorker magazine in 1977, and within a few years she began to be lumped in with writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempl, who wrote about ordinary people in a stripped-down prose style. These writers were called minimalists, but Robison said: “I detested the term. I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting. It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in. They’d bring your name up just to kick you.”

She published a few collections in the 1980s, including An Amateur’s Guide to the Night (1983) and Believe Them (1988). In the 1990s, she was struck with a terrible case of writer’s block. She said: “For about 10 years I didn’t publish much of anything, and I didn’t have anything. I had nothing, and I really didn’t know if I ever would again. … It’s about pride, really; feeling the words on the page can never represent you. It’s the worst thing you can learn about yourself. You could go mad.”

After a while of being unable to write anything, Robison began taking drastic measures. She started driving around in her car with a tape recorder, and whenever anything came into her head, she would just scream it into the tape recorder. Then she’d go home and write these things down on note cards. Eventually she had about a thousand note cards, and she realized that with a little work she could arrange them into a novel.

The result was her book Why Did I Ever (2001), a very short novel told in 536 very short chapters about a woman named Money Breton, divorced three times, who’s addicted to Ritalin and trying to support herself as a screenwriter.


It’s the birthday of historian Taylor Branch, (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1947). He came from a well-off family who ran a chain of Laundromats and bowling alleys and had no interest in politics. When he saw the famous photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors, it was a wake-up call. He said, “Until those dogs in Birmingham, which penetrated my little world of high school sports and chasing girls, I thought that everything in America was wonderful.” So he started to learn about the civil rights movement, and when he heard part of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., he said, “I knew that I wanted to investigate the life that could produce that voice.”

He has done exactly that. He worked for the civil rights movement and as a Democratic activist — he shared an apartment with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham in 1972 to work on the George McGovern campaign. He has written several books, but he is most famous for a chronological trilogy about the civil rights movement collectively known as America in the King Years. The three books were Parting the Waters (1988), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Pillar of Fire (1998); and At Canaan’s Edge (2006).

He said, “I would like my readers to entertain the core notion that civil rights history is not a quaint tale of yesteryear, but rather our best model for the urgent task of understanding and refining democracy.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist Anchee Min, (books by this author) born in Shanghai (1957). She and her parents and her three brothers and sisters lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. But under the Maoist regime, they were suspected of being bourgeois intellectuals. Her father taught astronomy, and he was accused of subversive teaching because he taught about sunspots, and since Chairman Mao was considered the sun, it was assumed that he was insulting Mao. Min’s family was moved to communal government housing, her parents were given new jobs, and she went to work memorizing the words of Chairman Mao and denouncing anyone or anything associated with Western influence. She was the head of the Little Red Guard at her elementary school, a model Maoist.

When she was 17, Min was selected to be sent to a labor camp called Red Fire Farm, where she could fulfill the noble cause of being a peasant. It was terrible, back-breaking work, and even worse psychologically. One of her co-workers, a woman named Little Green, was caught with a lover — he was executed, and she went insane and killed herself. Min herself had an intense, secret love affair with a woman named Yan, one of her commanders, a dedicated Revolutionary.

But she was whisked away from Red Fire Farm after she caught the eye of a film crew sent out by Jiang Ching, Mao’s wife, to find the perfect actress for a new film. Jiang Ching didn’t care about finding someone who could act — she wanted a “perfect peasant-type face,” and Min said her own fit that description, with “weather-beaten skin, calloused and blistered hands, broad smile, wide-set eyes and big nose.” She ended up being chosen from 20,000 candidates to play the lead role in a film, a pet project of Jiang Ching’s. But partway through production, Mao died, and Jiang Ching was suddenly hated, as was anyone connected with her. No one wanted to talk with Min or treat her like a human being.

She had a friend who helped get her to the United States. She didn’t know any English, so she applied to the University of Chicago because it was the only school where she didn’t have to actually prove that she knew English. She had a friend fill out her application and check the box saying that she spoke English, and she managed to make it the United States. When the University of Chicago found out that she didn’t know a single word of English, they kicked her out, but she was allowed to stay in the country for six months, and was told that she would be deported if she couldn’t learn to speak English in that amount of time. So she watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. She started writing as a way to improve her English, and slowly she wrote a memoir about her experiences in Communist China, a book called Red Azalea (1994). It became a New York Times best-seller, and since then she has written six novels, including Becoming Madame Mao (2001), about Jiang Ching, and The Last Empress (2007).

Anchee Min wants her young daughter to understand that everyone suffers. She said, “Whenever I tell her a fairy tale, I always say, ‘Then they lived happily ever after. Of course, you have to keep in mind that hearts change, and you can be crushed.'”

Her most recent book is The Cooked Seed: A Memoir (2013).

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Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Other people imagine that if they exercise regularly and eat more fiber, they’ll live to be 98. I don’t. I believe that an exemplary healthful lifestyle makes it more likely I’ll be struck by a marble plinth falling off a building as I walk to the health club. I’m not even sure what a plinth is but it’s likely that one will kill me.

My grandma used to sing me to sleep with a song about two little children lost in a blizzard — “they sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried, and the poor little things, they lay down and died” — which is nothing Mister Rogers ever sang, but Grandma saw no reason to hide harsh reality from us. She did not tell us to look the other way when she chopped the head off a chicken. Death was a part of our lives. How many children today have observed a beloved relative swing an axe and decapitate a bird? Not many.

My fellow Democrats have been assuming for two years that our corrupt King would be brought to his knees by a keen investigator — and they are now sadly disappointed and wandering in confusion. Everyone knows he is corrupt — he himself boasted about it — he grew up admiring men who shrewdly worked the system to their own benefit, cutting corners left and right, stiffing the little guys, paying off the big honkers. Public service was never his thing, not then, not now.

Democrats are horrified by the King, of course, as most people are. He is compulsively cruel, resolute in his ignorance, proudly illiterate, and on the one occasion he was seen in church, he did not bother to recite the Nicene Creed, unlike the four ex-presidents in the church with him. He doesn’t believe in a Holy Trinity but rather a Fearsome Foursome, Himself included.

So Democrats have launched a couple dozen campaigns against him. Every Democrat with better than 5 percent name recognition is out on the trail speaking to crowds of librarians, yoga instructors, poets, birdwatchers, and organic farmers and talking about climate change, health care, and the need for civility in public life. Next spring, Democrats will nominate a beautiful person in a white robe and sandals who holds out his or her arms and birds come and perch on them.

We assume that this wonderful person will win. That is what should happen, just as we ought to have daffodils blooming in April. As a Minnesotan, I see danger in the act of leaping to logical assumptions.

I awake sometimes in the middle of the night, seeing the headline KING COASTS TO 2ND TERM. Political scientists are astonished — and historians. But bikers, Baptists, and lovers of horror novels are not. The King is a living parable, a bad dream become real. We are not an enlightened people. It is 1856 all over again, except now with social media. Nobody wants to hear this. When I say these things to my fellow Democrats, they excuse themselves and go to the kitchen and brew a pot of chamomile tea with touches of rosemary and warm up a plate of artisanal corn muffins.

They have contempt for the King, his bad grammar, his cruel stare, his love of the garish, his pettiness, his devotion to his hair, and their contempt will lead them to nominate a holy progressive who will have his or her lunch eaten. This is a Minnesotan’s view. I am looking out the window at snowy fields as I write.

Having said that, I am going for a walk. I’ll stick close to the curb, to avoid any falling plinths. Have a good day.

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

I don’t come from a huggy family. My wife does. I don’t. In my family, a pat on the back is considered sufficient, but when my wife walks into a room full of Keillors, she goes from one to another, throwing her arms out and clutching them to her, and they have to stand there and accept it or else look like soreheads.

People like us — white, Anglo, Midwestern, formal, reluctant to make eye contact, uptight, stiff, boring — are ridiculed, by comedians of color and also colorless comedians, and we have learned not to object. “Where’s your sense of humor?” people would say, so we laugh at the stereotype even though we don’t find it funny.

I don’t go around smiling. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy; it’s simply the culture I was born in. The photographs of my ancestors that we kept on the piano showed solemn bearded men and severe women and their gloomy children, no incisors visible whatsoever. My dad and uncles didn’t smile a lot. They associated smileyness with salesmen trying to charm you into buying a ten-year-old Dodge with a loose clutch and rust around the bumpers. I went off to college and, in order to be hip, read existential writers about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, while chain-smoking Luckies and drinking espresso, which tends to solemnize a person as well.

On account of my seriousness, people are always asking, “What’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I call this demeanorism, judging people by their facial expression. Inside, I’m pretty lighthearted but on the outside, I look as if I’ve been struck by a baseball bat and am trying to remember my name.

The squeeze that I experienced was ten years ago and I’m not saying it was traumatic but I do wish she would take ownership of it and express some regret at having ignored my feelings, and then I have a sudden sensation in my rear end, a suspicious flatness, and I reach back and there is no wallet there, and suddenly I’m up and running from room to room, checking pockets, looking under tables, calling up cafes I’ve patronized the past couple days.

This is the bright red wallet my wife bought me after I left a black wallet on the seat of a taxicab late one night and it occurs to me that this wallet loss, coming a month after the previous, may be what convinces her I need help. Tomorrow there’ll be a power-of-attorney form to sign and consultation with a series of people in white uniforms who take notes as I’m put through a battery of tests involving matching shapes on little wooden cubes, and my wife, who loves me dearly, will break the news gently. There is a care center that specializes in elderly men with cognitive issues. It’s called Sunnyvale and it has a triple-A rating from the AARP and there is shuffleboard and checkers and color TV in every room and a sing-along on Saturday nights where the elderly gather to sing Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones hits.

For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe Michelle Obama reached around me to lift my wallet out of my back pocket.

And then I find it. It’s in the freezer. I set it down when I was getting out the frozen waffles this morning.

Ignore whatever I was saying before. I am okay. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. This is all a man needs. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. It’s spring. We’re going to be okay.

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

This church is in Manhattan where temptations to pleasure line Amsterdam Avenue and I walk to church while smelling fresh croissants, rich dark coffee from Kenya, Japanese noodles, chrysanthemums, soft cheeses, and much more, most of which God is involved in producing. The hymn seemed to suggest that I sacrifice fresh pumpernickel and espresso for Wonder Bread and Sanka.

In the hymn, we also came out against “heedless word and deed” and, because it rhymes, “ambitions to succeed,” which I’m not giving up either. You give up heedlessness and pretty soon you’d never dare eat a peach or wade in a brook or ask a woman to dance. And ambition is what gets me moving in the morning. I’m 76 and writing a musical called “Dusty & Lefty” and already I’m envisioning the review in the Times — “gorgeous … lyrical … makes ‘Hamilton’ seem like a tabletop appliance that blends milkshakes.”

It’s a cruel hymn. It says, “Teach us to know our faults, O God,” which is fine, but then, for the rhyme, it says, “Train us with thy rod.” This is rhyme without reason. Why not “May we with thy truth be shod” or “Let us bloom as goldenrod”? The Psalmist said, “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me” but “Train us with thy rod” has definite sadomasochistic overtones in Manhattan.

The pleasures that I love include walking, riding the train, and sitting at a window seat as the airliner comes in low over the Sound and catches the deck of the carrier LaGuardia and hits the brakes. They include what I’m doing right now, tapping away on a laptop, not sure where this is going. They include monogamy, a good idea that puts the parents in the background. We are the stagehands. We have each other and are not searching for self-fulfillment. That’s for the children. I used to seek self-fulfillment in spirituous beverages and stopped fifteen years ago. It’s a pleasure to not do it anymore.

I enjoy the proximity of my wife who as I write is sitting fifteen feet away and, moments ago, when I stood on the sofa to pull the shade so the sun wouldn’t blind me, jumped up from her Sunday crossword and held me by the hips lest I fall. I’ve always wanted her to do that and never knew how to ask. It felt like we were about to dance the tango. The sun poured in like a spotlight at the Roxy and I waited for the drum roll. I hope she will grab me again and next time hold a red gardenia between her teeth and another behind her ear. I like a grabby woman. She womansplained that she was afraid I’d fall and crack my skull. It was very sweet.

Life is good. I can order a cab and then watch its progress on a map on my phone so I don’t need to stand at the curb, I can go into the drugstore and stroll amidst acres of emollients and salves and lubricants. Back in the day we only had Jergens which softened the skin but today’s products hydrate, rejuvenate, regenerate, perhaps emancipate and elucidate, they contain aloe and collagens and vitamin E from Egypt and seaweed oil and fluorides that promote fluency and efflorescence. I could buy socks with odor-eating chemicals. Paste that makes my teeth brilliant.

Instead, I buy a carton of dandelion tea. We used to consider dandelions an enemy and now it’s a comfort. Progress is made. I can text a photograph of us to our daughter at her school and she texts back, “Awwww. Sweet.” Pharmaceuticals that didn’t exist for my uncles enabled me to reach 76, an age when if I jump up on the couch, the woman I love will grab me. I can give up crankiness for Lent and bad grammar — I will not ask her to lay beside me but to LIE beside me — but I won’t give up heedless pleasure. It has been my ambition for many years.

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April 27, 2019

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Writing

Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Read More

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

Read More

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

Read More

So that’s over, and what’s next?

Finally it’s coming to an end, two years of speculation, more than what’s been written about the future of American higher education, the American novel, and the planet Earth combined, thanks to that long angular face with the sharp Puritan nose and the stone jaw, a man famous for his silence, and why is the name pronounced MULL-er and not MYOO-ler like all the Muellers I know — what’s going on here? Why the secrecy?

Read More

It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

Read More

Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

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I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

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Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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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.

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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

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