The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Listening for Your Name
by David Graham

As a father steals into his child’s half-lit bedroom
slowly, quietly, standing long and long
counting the breaths before finally slipping
back out, taking care not to wake her,

and as that night-lit child is fully awake the whole
time, with closed eyes, measured breathing,
savoring a delicious blessing she couldn’t
name but will remember her whole life,

how often we feel we’re being watched over,
or that we’re secretly looking in on the ones
we love, even when they are far away,
or even as they are lost in the sleep

no one wakes from—what we know
and what we feel can fully coincide, like love
and worry, like taking care in full silence
and secrecy, like darkness and light together.

 

“Listening for Your Name” by David Graham from The Honey of Earth. Terrapin Books © 2019. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Any time not spent on love is wasted.” That’s Torquato Tasso (books by this author), born in Sorrento, Italy (1544), into a noble family.

In 1581, he published his most famous work, La Gerusalemme liberata, or Jerusalem Delivered, an epic poem about the Crusades. It was hugely popular across Europe, even as Tasso suffered from what is now thought to be schizophrenia — he was suspicious of everyone around him and lashed out at friends and patrons. He started taking off in secret, traveling incognito around the countryside. He lost all his money and had to move from court to court, trying to get various noblemen to support him. One frustrated benefactor committed him to a madhouse, where he spent seven years. Despite his mental illness, Tasso continued writing love sonnets, plays, and epic and religious poems, and he was proclaimed poet laureate by the pope — but he died just days before he was to be crowned.


It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was published (books by this author).

Two years before she had spent the summer in a cabin on Lake Geneva with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her sister Claire, and Claire’s lover, the poet Lord Byron. It rained a lot that summer, and one night, Byron suggested they all write ghost stories. At first Mary had trouble coming up with a story, but while lying in bed, reported having a waking nightmare, seeing a vision of a man reanimating a creature. She wrote: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” So she set to work on Frankenstein.


It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (books by this author), born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn (1916). The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, he wanted to be an artist, and that worried his family — but he couldn’t afford art school, so he got a job painting murals for the Works Progress Administration, and designed army camouflage during World War II.

The first book he wrote and illustrated on his own was The Snowy Day (1962), done all in collage, about a young black boy named Peter playing in his neighborhood after a new snowfall. It was one of the first children’s books to feature a black character. He went on to illustrate more than 80 children’s books, and to write and illustrate more than 20 books.

He said, “I love city life. All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people.”


It was on this day in 1918 that the first cases of what would become the influenza pandemic were reported in the U.S. when 107 soldiers got sick at Fort Riley, Kansas.

It was the worst pandemic in world history. The flu that year killed only 2.5 percent of its victims, but more than a fifth of the world’s entire population caught it — it’s estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died in just a few months. Historians believe at least 500,000 people died in the United States alone.

 

 

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

Now and then some statues need replacing

When I heard that the statue of Stonewall Jackson had been pulled down in Richmond, I wondered why it was in Richmond when Stonewall was from North Carolina and made his career in Nashville, then I remembered that in addition to the country singer, there had been a Confederate general.

In fact, the singer had been named for the general, which was no problem in country music in the Fifties. I used to sing a song of his, “Don’t be angry with me, darling, if I fail to understand all your little whims and wishes all the time. Just remember that I’m dumb, I guess, like any foolish man, and my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine,” which, in the annals of love poetry, doesn’t rank with “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” or “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night” nor even “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,” but still I sang it, I admit, not considering its Confederate connections.

Not enough people are aggrieved over Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s statue falling to reelect the president, which he will find out in due course, and my only question is: whom can we replace Jackson with, and Beauregard, Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the other heroes of the Lost Cause? It’s good to have statues that give old people like me a chance to stop and rest, while out for a walk with a young person, and tell about who that bronze figure on the pedestal is. Nobody in Richmond knew enough about General Jackson to say much about him, and that’s why he and his horse were dismantled. He said, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees,” which, as dying words go, is very elegant. Too bad Lincoln never had the chance to utter dying words, he was watching a fourth-rate comedy and Booth waited for the laugh line, “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap” and fired the gun on the laugh and that was Lincoln’s last line.

As replacements for generals that nobody much remembers, I’d propose Little Richard, a fascinating character who swung back and forth from “Good Golly, Miss Molly” to “How Great Thou Art,” from raunch to gospel, and Miss Flannery O’Connor who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” She said, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” She said, “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” Any one of the three would make a terrific inscription on a statue and I say there are enough statues of men on horses, there need to be more statues of slight women in plain dresses wearing glasses and looking intently down at their visitors.

For New Orleans, instead of Beauregard, you’ve got King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino to choose from. In Richmond, you can put up the satirist Tom Wolfe (“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” ). Memphis could have Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon and as you approach the statue, you’d step on a steel plate and they’d sing to you, “Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care. Speaking of bad luck, people, you know I’ve had my share.”

The smartest thing General Stonewall Jackson said was, “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit, for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number.” And that is what Joe Biden should do. The current Confederate president is starting to panic and it’s time to rout him and bring out the Bolton information, the Mary Trump revelations, the Mattis denunciation, the video of Ivanka praising her father from a script as he listens, the Trump tax returns, and let’s get this wide-ride on the run, his hair flying in the wind, chase him down the road with Mr. Pence hanging on to his coattails. Goodbye, Queens, and hello, Delaware.

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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Now and then some statues need replacing

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In fact, the singer had been named for the general, which was no problem in country music in the Fifties. I used to sing a song of his, “Don’t be angry with me, darling, if I fail to understand all your little whims and wishes all the time. Just remember that I’m dumb, I guess, like any foolish man, and my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine,” which, in the annals of love poetry, doesn’t rank with “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” or “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night” nor even “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,” but still I sang it, I admit, not considering its Confederate connections.

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A modest proposal: Make today a new day

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Read More

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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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