The Writer’s Almanac for March 10, 2019


So We’ll Go No More A-Roving
by Lord Byron

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

“So We’ll Go No More A-Roving” by Lord Byron. Public domain.


It was on this day in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call. Bell’s first successful telephone used a liquid transmitter: a diaphragm that caused a needle to vibrate in water, similar to the way sound waves vibrate in air. He spoke to his assistant, electrical designer Thomas Watson, who was in the next room. He said, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.” Later that day, he wrote an excited letter to his father. He wrote, “The day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”

“Hello” is, of course, the standard greeting when most English-speaking people answer the phone, but this was not Bell’s preferred greeting, and it was some time before the protocol was sorted out. In The First Telephone Book, author Ammon Shea tells us that Bell favored “Ahoy!” and stubbornly used it for the rest of his life. His competitor Thomas Edison, on the other hand, preferred “Hello.” Shea posits that “hello” caught on in part due to the “How To” section in early phone books, which recommended “a hearty ‘hulloa'” as a proper greeting. The phone book’s recommended sign-off — “That is all!” — never took root.


Zelda Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born Zelda Sayre, died on this day in 1948. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900, her tumultuous marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald came to symbolize the Jazz Age of the 1920s. A writer, painter, and dancer herself, her creative endeavors were overshadowed by those of her husband; Scott relied on her heavily to provide inspiration and a “voice” for his female characters, so much so that she once said, “Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

A breakdown in 1930 led to a series of hospitalizations, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She moved in and out of a number of institutions, eventually ending up at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. On the day she died, a fire broke out in the hospital’s kitchen. Locked in a room awaiting electric shock therapy, Zelda had no chance as the fire spread through the dumbwaiter shaft and wooden fire escapes. She and eight other women died, and she was buried next to Scott, who had died eight years earlier, in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland. On their shared tombstone is inscribed the last line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


A woman known as “Moses” died on this day in 1913. Harriet (Ross) Tubman was born to slave parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, in Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact year of her birth is uncertain, but it was probably around 1820. She was christened Araminta by her parents, and soon became known as “Minty,” though she eventually renamed herself Harriet after her mother. When she was about five or six, the slave-owner hired her out as a child-minder. She was whipped if the baby cried and woke its mother, and one day she received five whippings before breakfast.

When the 15-year-old Harriet refused one day to help an overseer restrain a runaway slave, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight and was left unconscious without medical care for two days. Although she recovered, she began suffering from seizures, and narcolepsy, and also began to have visions and prophetic dreams. Deeply religious, she viewed these as messages from God.

She married a free man, John Tubman, around 1844, though she was still a slave. When the plantation owner died in 1849, Harriet escaped, with two of her brothers. John Tubman stayed behind and eventually remarried. Using the Underground Railroad and the aid of Quakers, traveling by night to avoid the slave-catchers, navigating by the North Star, she made it to Philadelphia and enjoyed a brief period as a free woman, until passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made her a runaway slave once again. The thought of her family left behind in Maryland haunted her, and she worked odd jobs and saved her money, so that a year later, she might return to help her niece’s family escape.

Over 10 years and at least 13 trips, Harriet Tubman is believed to have led some 300 souls out of slavery into freedom in Canada. On one of her last trips, she brought out her parents, who were by that time around 70 years old. She used ingenious diversions to avoid being caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for Friday nights because “escaped slave” notices couldn’t be published until the following Monday. At one point, the price on her head was as high as $40,000, but she was never betrayed. She was never captured and neither were the slaves she led. Years later, she told an audience, “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”

She also served as a cook, a nurse, a scout, and a Union spy during the Civil War, and though she received commendation for her service, she was never paid. She described one battle she witnessed: “And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”

After the Civil War, she began taking in orphans, the elderly, and the infirm. In 1903, she bought land adjacent to her home in Auburn, New York, and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent, and then transferred the mortgage to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Though this was her final major humanitarian project, she continued to travel and speak at suffrage conventions into the early 1900s.


Today is the birthday of James Herriot, (books by this author) born James Alfred Wight, in 1916. Born in Sunderland, England, his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, when he was still an infant. He became a veterinarian and moved to the Yorkshire Dales, and in 1966 at the age of 50 he began a series of much-beloved books loosely based on the people and animals he had known there. He took the title of the first book, All Creatures Great and Small, from a 19th-century Anglican hymn, and used the rest of the lines of the refrain for the next three books: All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.

Herriot died of cancer in 1995, at the age of 78.


It’s the birthday of lexicographer Henry Fowler (books by this author), born in Tonbridge, England, (1858). Fowler was a schoolmaster for a while, then went to live on the island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy, where his younger brother Frank was a tomato farmer. Frank lived in a stone cottage, and Henry built another one less than 200 feet away.

The Fowler brothers collaborated on a book about grammar and punctuation, called The King’s English (1906). The King’s English was a big success, so the Oxford University Press commissioned them to edit an abridged Oxford English Dictionary. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911) has been in print ever since.

After Frank died of tuberculosis, Henry wrote a book about style, word usage, and good writing. He came down on the side of direct, vigorous style, opposing the convoluted, pedantic, and arcane. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was published in 1926and it quickly set the standard for language and style. Winston Churchill ordered one of his officers to consult it when the man confused the proper usage of intense and intensive.

He wrote: “Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners.”


It was on this day in 1965 that Neil Simon‘s play The Odd Couple (books by this author) opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney as Oscar and Felix, who become roommates after their marriages fall apart. Oscar is a recently divorced sportswriter, a total slob, relishing his new apartment. At one of his Friday-night poker games, Felix shows up, devastated because his wife has just kicked him out. Oscar invites him to share the apartment, but the two men’s styles couldn’t be more different. Felix wants everything neat and clean, he cries freely in front of women when he thinks about his wife, and despite Oscar’s best coaching, he isn’t good at throwing things against the wall in anger.

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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.

Here in Minnesota, we have two more big snowstorms to endure, the DST storm and then the State High School Basketball Tournament blizzard at the end of the month, and then we’re in the clear. I see younger people out walking even now, but they have headphones on and I worry that they won’t hear the car approaching and will step boldly into the crosswalk while listening to a wealthy pop star screaming that nobody understands her, which would be a wretched way to die, run over by a geezer confused by the stoplight while you are tuned in to the complaints of a multi-multi-millionaire.

It’s been a hard winter, though it was late arriving, and in March I look around my shrinking circle of friends for signs of marital discord. Being cooped up in close quarters can lead to questions — how was I attracted to this (dolt/shrew) and how should I proceed to shed myself of (him/her)? You sit over your organic artisanal oatmeal and your spouse asks if you were aware that the world’s population is 7.6 billion, which you weren’t, and it seems that he or she has read a book about demography and would like to give you the highlights. The combination of demography and oatmeal leads you down into a dark psychological cellar, but how can you say “Shut up” to your mate and not offend her/him? So you stifle yourself and resentment builds and that night, while drying dishes, you drop a precious plate that belonged to your spouse’s grandmother and the spouse stalks out of the room and goes online and Googles “divorce.”

I see no signs of this among the people I know and I’m glad. Divorce is a disaster, even when it is necessary. It is dreadful for children, don’t kid yourself. I am thinking of starting a movement against it, #UsTwo. I may write a book in which I say that forgiveness is the crucial thing in marriage, not justice, not commonality, and that a couple must — not should, but must — go through the ceremonies of affection, the morning embrace, the saying of “I love you” at least fifteen times daily, the touching of the loved one’s shoulders and arm and back whenever within reach, the wholehearted acceptance of the spouse’s irrational whims and impulses. Silence is the enemy. Chitchat is your friend. Small talk is at the center of every long-lived love. Avoid big ideas. Never discuss demography. Now and then put away the oatmeal and have steak and eggs.

My wife is cheerful and I am dour and when people see us on the street, they think, “How good of that young woman to get her uncle out of the Home and into the fresh air.” But we get along very well thanks to our observance of the formalities. The touch on the shoulder, the sudden turning to the other and saying, “I’m in love with you,” and meaning it. If she looks at me over the oatmeal tomorrow and says that Bernie Sanders has won her heart, it honestly won’t matter to me one bit. If she is lured into some exotic cult that wears pointy hats and worships cats and never walks in threes, I’m OK. We are solid.

The world is not as it once was and we know that. The homegrown tomato has almost disappeared from America in favor of species bred for long shelf life so they can be trucked up from Ecuador in the winter, tomatoes that bounce if you drop them because they are bred with genes of tennis balls, and so you no longer bite into a tomato and feel euphoria, but if you are loved and if spring comes soon, you’re going to be OK. It’s just ahead. We’ll sit outdoors and drink coffee and the sun will shine on us, I promise.

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.

Twelve hats are in, more on the way, some serious, most delusional. Hotel business in Iowa and New Hampshire will be steady all year and then on Super Tuesday, March 3, the truth will dawn. The stumblers and pretenders, the gasbags and long-shot gamblers, will quietly disappear, and two or three contenders will head into the spring and summer.

It is presumed they’ll be running against the weak incumbent but after the Cohen hearing, one doubts that. D.T. is accepted by everyone over the age of ten, even those who love him, as a dishonest sleazeball with ADD issues, and with Democrats conducting hearings from now till the election, he is going to be in the news more or less nonstop as a national embarrassment. Republicans at last week’s hearing could only heckle Cohen; none of them stood up for his boss and said what a great American he is. His best hope is that Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee: that’s a race D.T. can win in a walk. America doesn’t want an angry president; wacko is bad enough.

If Joe Biden enters the lists and emerges next March as the front-runner, D.T. will issue a brief statement that, having made the country great again and now wishing to spend quality time with his family, he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his short game. Maybe Sean Hannity will accept the nomination in his place. America is not ready for a man who parts his hair that high on his head. Biden will win and restore normalcy.

The remarkable thing about the Cohen hearing was how unremarkable it was, the whole wretched epic of corruption and dishonesty and egomania. And the remarkable thing about D.T. is how little real damage the grifter has accomplished. We all imagined that the Presidency was a superhuman responsibility, the light burning late in the Oval Office, the great man bearing the world on his shoulders, and now it turns out that a clown with a hair fetish who doesn’t know schist from Shinola can occupy the chair and life goes on much as before. Electricity is flowing, there is milk and butter in the stores. If Justice Ginsburg resigns soon, we will have a Supreme Court straight out of 1857. But your Wi-Fi will still work.

There is a general awareness that we cannot continue trashing the planet as we’ve done, but the crisis grows slowly and AOC can’t promote it to emergency simply by saying so. We don’t want to ride the bus and turn off lawn sprinklers until God sends a prophet in a pillar of fire to scare us, not just a bunch of Ph.Ds. So the Green New Deal, though insightful, is not a winner.

The Mueller report will not usher D.T. out of office. He is a crook and a liar but we’ve known that for two years. Mueller will only add details. The Republican Party is not going to usher him out; he owns them.

What will win for Democrats is a candidate who is presidential. Even people who expect to vote for D.T. are embarrassed by him. Nobody imagines that he represents anything admirable about America. Obama was a good orator. W. was likable. Clinton loved politics. Bush was a war hero. Reagan was genuine. Carter was a man of faith. Ford was a true patriot. Nixon was a master of his craft. Ike was Ike. Each man had biographers who found things to admire. D.T. is as transparent as cellophane, one of the most unloved presidents in our history.

The American electorate wants this man to disappear into the back pages and the Democrats owe it to us to make that happen. This is no time for a great leap forward. It is time for him to go so that journalists can go back to writing nonfiction and Congress can get back into business. Let’s put a woman in charge in 2024. First, let’s have an old white guy with thin hair throw the rascal out.

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March 28, 2019

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7:30 p.m.

Owatonna, MN

Owatonna, MN

March 28, 2019

Garrison Keillor heads to Steele County for a solo performance to benefit the Historical Society. 7:30 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 25, 2019

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Writing

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.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

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Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

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The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

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