The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, June 28, 2020

Young and Old
by Charles Kingsley

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.


“Young and Old” by Charles Kingsley. Public Domain. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which began a chain of events that ultimately led to World War I.

In 1882, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary signed a Triple Alliance. Britain was nervous about Russian expansion, but was allied with France, who was allied with Russia, so eventually Britain also agreed to an alliance with Russia; the alliance between those three nations became known as the “Triple Entente.”

By the time that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the alliances were so complex that any act of aggression by any nation toward any other was almost guaranteed to set off a conflict across all of Europe.

Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He went to visit Sarajevo, where he was not very popular. Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia, one of the provinces of Austria-Hungary. But many Bosnians had no interest in being part of the empire, and there were radical militant groups like the Black Hand Gang trying to unite the various Slavic territories under their own rule. The archduke’s assassin, Gavrilo Princip was a 19-year-old member of the Black Hand. Another member of the Black Hand had tried to assassinate Franz Ferdinand earlier that morning, but the grenade he threw had a 10-second delay, so it exploded under a car behind the royal couple, seriously injuring several other people. The archduke changed his parade route so that he could go visit the victims in the hospital, but his driver took a wrong turn. The driver stalled the car while he tried to back up, and Princip just happened to be on that street close to the car. So he pulled out a pistol and shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie from just a few feet away. Both of them died before they made it to the hospital.

Austria-Hungary immediately blamed the attack on Serbia. The assassination was the excuse that Austria-Hungary needed, and Emperor Franz Joseph declared war on Serbia. Serbia was a small nation, but it called on a powerful ally, Russia, who agreed to fight its side. And suddenly, all the allies were falling into line: Germany sided with Austria-Hungary, and after Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium, England declared war on Germany.

From the beginning, there were staggering death tolls during what was called “The Great War.” In the Battle of the Somme, close to 60,000 British soldiers died the first day, and by the time the four-month battle was over, more than 1.5 million soldiers had died. The 10-month Battle of Verdun ended with 540,000 French and 430,000 Germans dead. There are no exact death tolls, but an estimated 115,000 American soldiers died, 1.4 million French soldiers, 1.7 million German soldiers, and 1.7 million Russian soldiers.

On top of that, there was a huge financial cost, estimated at between $180 and 230 billion on direct military costs alone.

World War I is often represented as a pointless war — a war started by a relatively minor event, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and marked by long deadlocked battles. But historians say the conflict had been building for years. There were already strong tensions among the European nations, not only from conflicting alliances and naval competition, but also from competing stakes in colonial territories — Germany wanted to undermine the British and French empires; and empires like Austria-Hungary were weakened by ethnic conflict and rebellion.

These days, the most famous literature from World War I depicts the horror and the futility of the war — poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque, all of them soldiers as well as writers.

The historian Niall Ferguson wrote: “1914–18 was one of the great watersheds in financial history. The United States emerged for the first time as the rival to Great Britain as a financial super power. … It’s the point at which the United States firmly ceases to be a debtor and becomes a creditor nation — the world’s banker.”

Today is the birthday of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley (1703) (books by this author). He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, and his father was a Nonconformist — a dissenter from the Church of England. Wesley studied at Oxford, where he decided to become a priest. He and his brother joined a religious study group that was given the nickname “the Methodists” for their rigorous and methodical study habits; the name wasn’t meant as a compliment, but Wesley hung onto it anyway and managed to attract several new members to the group, which fasted two days a week and spent time in social service.

By 1739, he felt he wasn’t really reaching people from the pulpit, so he took to the fields, traveling on horseback, preaching two or three times a day. He began recruiting local laypeople to preach as well, and ran afoul of the Church of England for doing so. He believed that Christians could be made “perfect in love” when their actions arose out of a desire to please God and to promote the welfare of the less fortunate. He wrote: “Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment. It is not only ‘the first and great’ command, but all the commandments in one. ‘Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise,’ they are all comprised in this one word, love.”

He was also an ardent abolitionist. In Thoughts on Slavery (1774), he wrote: “Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands.”

He’s said to have traveled 250,000 miles, preached 40,000 sermons, and written, translated, or edited more than 200 volumes. He made £20,000 for his publications but gave most of it away and died in poverty. Though there’s no evidence that he actually wrote it himself, “John Wesley’s Rule” does a fair job of summing up his life:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Today is the birthday of comedian Gilda Radner (1946) (books by this author), born in Detroit. She struggled with eating disorders from the time she was nine years old, and said, “I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93.” She gained national recognition as a member of the original 1975 cast of Saturday Night Live. She was the first cast member that producer Lorne Michaels chose, and in her five years on the show she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and Baba Wawa (modeled after Barbara Walters).

In 1981, she met Gene Wilder on the set of the film Hanky Panky. They made two more movies together and married in 1984, and when she tried to get pregnant, she found out she had ovarian cancer. After painful radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she went into a brief remission in 1988, and she wrote her memoir It’s Always Something — the trademark phrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna — that same year. By the end of 1988, the cancer had returned, and she died the following May.

She wrote in her autobiography: “It is so hard for us little human beings to accept this deal that we get. It’s really crazy, isn’t it? We get to live, then we have to die. What we put into every moment is all we have. … What spirit human beings have! It is a pretty cheesy deal — all the pleasures of life, and then death.”

In the early hours of this day in 1969, the Stonewall uprising broke out in New York City, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a popular hangout for gays, lesbians, crossdressers, and transgender people in the late 1960s. On June 28, police raided the bar on the premise that they were selling alcohol without a liquor license. It was the third raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar in a short period of time, and this time when the cops cleared the bar, the patrons didn’t disperse, but milled around outside, hurtling insults and bottles at the police. The officers called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar. The riots lasted five days; they galvanized and unified smaller gay rights movements and led to the radical activism of the 1970s. On the first anniversary of the riots, the first gay pride parades were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

In David Carter’s book Stonewall (2004), he quotes witness Michael Fader: “We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around — it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”


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

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In the early hours of this day in 1969, the Stonewall uprising broke out in New York City, marking the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 27, 2020

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On this day 20 years ago, scientific teams completed the first rough map of the human genome. One finding: the human species goes back 7,000 generations.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 25, 2020

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, June 24, 2020

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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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The News from Manhattan: Friday, June 19, 2020

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). 

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