The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, July 1, 2020


Sleeping on My Side
by Billy Collins

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theatres and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

 

“Sleeping on My Side” by Billy Collins. Permission by Chris Calhoun Agency, © Billy Collins, from his collection Whale Day and Other Poems, to be published by Random House in September. (preorder now)


The United States Postal Service introduced ZIP codes on this day in 1963. “ZIP” stands for “Zone Improvement Plan,” and they’re designed to make sorting and delivering mail more efficient. The first three digits represent the part of the country the mail is going to, and the last two identify the post office within that region.

In 1983, the U.S. Postal Service rolled out “ZIP + 4,” which added a hyphen and four additional digits to the end of the current ZIP code to speed things up even more. The first two digits of the addendum stand for a specific group of streets or cluster of large buildings, and the last two narrow it down further, specifying one side of the block or even one floor in a large building.

ZIP codes start with zero in the Northeast and get bigger as one moves south and west. There are more than 42,000 ZIP codes in the United States.


On this day in 1979Sony introduced the Walkman portable cassette player. Sony’s co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, liked to listen to music when he traveled, but he was tired of lugging a full-size cassette player with him, so he commissioned designers to come up with something more portable. Cassette player technology had been around since 1963, but Sony miniaturized it and made it portable as well as private, with no external speaker. They took the idea of the Pressman — a portable tape recorder that was popular with journalists — and removed the recording mechanism and added stereo sound. Skeptics doubted that it would sell, since it lacked recording capability, but Ibuka replied, “Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?”

The first Walkman model was the TPS-L2; it weighed 14 ounces, had a blue and silver chassis, chunky buttons, and two headphone jacks so you could listen with a friend. The Walkman was first available in Japan for a cost of 30,000 Yen, about $150 U.S., and Sony sold 50,000 of the players during the first two months, two and a half times more than they had projected.

Four years later, cassette tapes were outselling vinyl records for the first time, and in 1986, the word “Walkman” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Eventually, Sony came out with all kinds of new features — automatic reverse, AM-FM receivers, “bass boost,” and weatherproofing — but the writing was on the wall for cassette tapes once compact discs were introduced in 1982.


It’s the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford (books by this author), born in Covina, California (1915). She’s the author of several novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952). She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to the New Yorker magazine. When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died 10 years later and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.


It’s the birthday of the man who told writers to “Omit needless words!”: William Strunk Jr. (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He was an English professor at Cornell, where he published his grammar book The Elements of Style (1918)He intended it as a reference for his students, and one of those students was named Elwyn Brooks White. E.B. White went on to become a famous writer, and in 1957, White was commissioned to revise and expand the original grammar book. The new version of The Elements of Style, also referred to simply as “Strunk & White,” has sold more than 10 million copies.


It’s the birthday of French novelist George Sand (books by this author), born Lucile Aurore Dupin in Paris (1804). She was raised by her grandmother at the family’s estate in rural Berry in central France, and was sent to an English convent in Paris to be educated. Although she started out as a troublemaker, Aurore underwent a spiritual conversion and decided to become a nun. She was an enthusiastic convert, and the other girls called her “Saint Aurore.” When her grandmother discovered her granddaughter’s intentions, she promptly removed her from the convent and brought her home.

Back in Berry, she abandoned her dreams of the convent and did whatever she pleased. She loved to ride horseback, and her tutor at the time encouraged her to wear men’s clothing since it was more comfortable, so she rode all over the countryside in pants and a loose shirt. She smoked tobacco, learned to shoot, and flirted outrageously with all the local men. When her grandmother died, she inherited her money and estate.

She briefly went to Paris to live with her mother, and then got married and had two children. But her marriage soon deteriorated — her husband drank too much and was unfaithful. She fell in love with other men, including the novelist Jules Sandeau. Her relationship with Sandeau was short-lived, but while they were together, they co-wrote a novel, Rose et Blanche (1831). It was published under Sandeau’s pseudonym, J. Sand. When the publisher asked for another book, she had one written entirely by her, but Sandeau did not want it under his pen name. As a compromise, she published her new novel, Indiana (1832), under the name George Sand. It was a big success.

She was a prolific writer; she wrote more than 90 novels, 35 plays, and a multivolume autobiography.

Sand was one of the most famous women of her time, not just for her writing but for her scandalous behavior — everything from her men’s clothing and cigars to her sexual exploits were in the public eye. She had a long string of lovers, including Frédéric Chopin, and her many friends included Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Eugène Delacroix, Ivan Turgenev, and Gustave Flaubert. Sand and Flaubert were especially close, although the two novelists disagreed on just about everything from politics to the role of women to the purpose of art. They spent long hours together, smoking and discussing literature and humanity; they exchanged frequent letters, and read each other’s unpublished work. Sand was 17 years older than Flaubert; he addressed his letters to her “dear master,” while she addressed hers “friend of my heart.”

She said: “The world will know and understand me someday. But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”

 

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

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

In the opera, Aida is locked in a tomb with her lover, Radamès, which is like quarantine but without grocery deliveries and no Zoom. Saturday I did a Zoom chat with fellow workers from back in our touring days, doing shows, and we reminisced about shows in outdoor venues in the rain and the show from Yellowstone where a bison lay down to sleep in front of the satellite dish and the show where squirrels ate the mike cables, the show in Dublin where the audience was completely schnockered.

We won’t be sitting around telling pandemic stories five years from now, stories about sitting on the terrace and looking at the moon, and that’s okay by me. I’m not as interested in stories as I was back in the day. Since January 2017, the nation has seen a thousand fascinating stories out of Washington, each one with the same name in the headline, all of them unbelievable and fascinating, and after three years, a person is exhausted. What remains to happen? Will there be a big statue of him holding a Bible? Will he sign an executive order making the coronavirus go away? Will Jared be put in charge of the Pentagon?

My wife, who I almost sang Verdi to, said a sweet thing the other day. She said, “I wish people would just focus on the future, rather than the past.” I had been saying something about renaming our national capital because George and Martha had 300 slaves, renaming it Emerson after Ralph Waldo who had no slaves and had all his teeth and said smart things, such as “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” He recommended good books, good friends, and a sleepy conscience. He was in favor of curiosity and science and ambition. All Washington said was “I cannot tell a lie” and that was not true. He was a general who got lucky and caught the British in a trap. Emerson was a philosopher and a poet. If you renamed Washington Emerson, people would start reading him and this would be a far better country.

But she’s right. This country is guilty of mistreating its children. Seventeen million of them struggle to get enough food; malnutrition in the first three years of life can cause enduring problems. Lousy schools limit a child’s prospects for a happy life. Feeding and teaching children are things we know how to do. A sensible society looks after its children, its future. Nothing you do for children is wasted. We can condemn each other for old mistakes, but if we decide that 2021 is a new start and we start looking forward with a clear eye, then we can get somewhere. If Mississippi can finally surrender the Confederacy and take down its flag, there’s hope for the rest of us.

The city of Washington is an object of general scorn and abuse across the land. Let’s wipe the slate clean, rename it Emerson, and restart the idea of good government and common sense. We desperately need his optimism. “Trust thyself,” he said. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries. Let us not be invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” This year, we’ve seen the worst. Good. Now we know what it is. Now we can rise above it and join forces and work for what should be, equality, justice, prosperity, and good sense.

“Bad times have a scientific value,” he said. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Washington state and all the Washington counties are enough for George. “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” No need to make a statue of Ralph on a horse, just quoting him is good enough.

Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

I’m trying to finish a memoir and I realize now how much I don’t know and I was too busy careering around as my elders began taking the long walk and I didn’t sit down and ask for the story. My elders were self-effacing Midwesterners brought up not to talk about personal things and they kept many secrets from me such as how did the men fall in love with the women and vice versa, they being such righteous folk and sensible and circumspect. Mother came from a family of thirteen, Dad from eight, and when I knew them, they were all settled in comfortable marriages, and what I want to know is what transpired when they were infatuated and savoring sensual moments and looking forward to throwing caution to the wind.

It happened, even in cautious Christian families like mine. I see the pictures of my youthful aunts in their white summer dresses sashaying around the lakes of Minneapolis and I sense adventure and light-heartedness, not wary mothers I knew them as.

I know that my parents met on July 4, 1931, as teenagers at a picnic at the Keillor farm and were crazy about each other but I wish I’d asked them for more details. He was a farmboy, she was a city girl, slender and shy, and they didn’t marry until six years later, it being the Depression and all, but what happened in those six years? I grew up with two parents who held hands and flirted with each other all their long lives and I’m grateful and I want to know how come and there’s nobody left to ask.

I write about my life, the lost world of hitchhiking, which I knew as a kid and got picked up by angry half-drunk men who raged against the government, their bosses, their Army commanders, their wives, and I got a view of life you couldn’t get in school or from the newspaper. It’s gone and so are the downtown department stores of Minneapolis, the smells and bells, the ladies with white gloves who ran the elevators. I went to a state university back when tuition was so cheap you could pay for your education with a part-time low-wage job, no debt, no need to ask your dad for money, and so you were free to make impractical plans such as become a writer of fiction. I came from a fundamentalist family that was wary of higher education and I plunged into campus life and before I knew it I had four close friends, Larry and Barry and Maury and Arnie, all of them Jewish. I did an early-morning radio show back when people listened to radio religiously, before YouTube and Google and InnerTube and Bugle and iPod and pPod and all the other platforms.

It’s all interesting, but it’s the love stories that a person craves. You want to know that you’re descended from passionate irresponsibility, not a business arrangement or a science experiment, but two people mysteriously drawn to each other. My mother’s parents, William and Marian, courted in Glasgow and she was four months pregnant when they married. Their brood of thirteen children testifies to their feelings for each other. Dad’s parents, James and Dora, were twenty years apart in age. He was an old bachelor on the school board and she was a teacher; she boarded with him and his sister. He came to school and helped her clean blackboards and clap erasers and he kissed her and they ran off and got married. They came home in the buggy and he left the horses standing in harness all night, the reins on the ground, as he carried Dora into the house, his sister having disembarked for a house up the road. It’s good to know these things.

Sit your people down and ask questions. The secret of investigative journalism is: ask questions and keep asking — people want to spill the beans, they just need some warming up. Apply the heat. You will thank me for this someday. I won’t be around but you’re welcome.

In mid-June, we look ahead and think big

I’ve now spent three months in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and daughter, a life that is not so different from, say, living in a lighthouse in the Orkneys. We can see tall buildings, some bright lights, helicopters overhead, but it’s not the New York high life I dreamed of growing up in Minnesota. The problem is that I like it just fine. Solitude suits me pretty well. So why am I here?

I look back at dining out and I don’t miss it, two hours in a loud room where waiters with big personalities serve you tiny portions of a dish that includes much too much lentils to be worth $48. I look back at dinner parties and most of them were two hours too long and the conversation felt like a rehash of the Op-Ed page.

In quarantine, you learn that there’s a lot to be said for a fifteen-minute phone conversation with one other person who’s been in lockdown too and is excited by verbal communication with another human being.

I’m not complaining. People have died from the virus, many of them my age (77). I’m a writer, a trade that can be practiced in a lighthouse as well as in New York. I loved working in the reading room of the New York Public Library but sitting in my kitchen in the month of May, I wrote a novel about a small town in Minnesota. It can be done.

I’m a hermit in a cave. My daughter is fully engaged with her social circle via electronics that I, having grown up with a paper tablet and a No. 2 pencil, know zilch about. My wife knows about it and Zooms with people and puts on a mask and walks through Central Park and I, the fragile old guy with underlying conditions and other conditions lying under those, sit in my room and am okay with that. What once was a punishment is now a privilege.

Thanks to a sensible governor, New York has come through the plague reasonably well, but now comes the hard part: do we want to stay?

I came here because in the eighth grade, a teacher handed me a copy of the New Yorker magazine with a story by John Cheever and I loved his writing and loved the magazine, the urbanity, the humor, the curiosity. I once saw John Updike on the downtown Broadway local train, a thrilling experience. I once went to a party at a writer’s that was so wonderful I stayed until 5 a.m. and stood on the street and felt too happy to go home to bed. I bought a notebook at a newsstand and went to a café and sat and wrote and had breakfast. People passing, heading for the subway, the writer deep into invention.

For true New Yorkers, the city is the only place to be. But for a guy who wrote a novel in the back bedroom? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see Times Square and its flashing signs and canyons of glass where rivers of humanity move through, most of them simply for the experience of being in Times Square.

Locked up for three months, I’ve lost interest in the big city. The Orkneys have sandstone cliffs, seal colonies, and the electricity is wind-generated. Exports include beef, whiskey, cheese, and seafood. The climate is mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream. There are sheep and many lighthouses. Surely there would be one that would welcome a lightkeeper.

It sounds wonderful to me, sleeping in a room under the glass dome, the light sweeping over the North Sea, the sense of public service, warning fishermen from the rocks. Being the only novelist on the island. And I’d escape from the heavy burden of being an American, which has become onerous lately. In my Orknitude, I would only be an old man in a tower and a provider of light.

It’s a perfect plan and now all I need to do is convince my wife. I’m looking at her now as she reads the paper. Surely a man with my language skills can sway this woman’s heart. My darling, my love, take my hand, let us speak of things to come. We’ve done New York. Let me tell you of a wonderful place far away. Put your trust in your husband. If, after ten years, you don’t like the island of Graemsay, I promise we’ll move straight back.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, July 2, 2020

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It’s the birthday of French novelist George Sand, born Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804), who originally wanted to be a nun, but her grandmother wouldn’t let her.

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Writing

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, June 28, 2020

I loved sitting and admiring Erica Rhodes on Zoom last night from a comedy club in Minneapolis.

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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, June 27, 2020

The reason to write a novel is to say what you think in a form that allows enormous freedom — you can put the thoughts in different characters.

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, June 26, 2020

An exciting day, editing galleys and I’m down to the last twenty pages. The end is in sight. An author has to be a tough critic, especially an old one.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A lovely evening on our New York terrace made even lovelier by the host, 77, arising from his chair, tripping on it, losing his balance, then stumbling over.

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The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Who can explain why conversation flows thick with some people and thin with others? For one thing, with true friends, you’re not so bound by orthodoxy.

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Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

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Father’s Day, what shall I do? A burnt-out bulb to unscrew? Does the A/C compressor need repair? Yes, sir, Soon as I find super glue.

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My family is extremely considerate of the writer in their midst and during the quarantine they disappear into corners of the apartment and let him be.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, June 18, 2020

I’m in quarantine and not about to march in the street, so what’s to be done? Listen, read, pay attention, and send money to places where it’ll do good.

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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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