The Writer’s Almanac for March 15, 2019

Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist
by Barbara Crooker

Because he can still cause a reaction in me
when he talks about SN2 displacements,
amines and esters looking for receptor sites
at the base of their ketones. Because he lugs
home serious tomes like The Journal of the American
Chemical Society
 or The Proceedings of the Society
of the Plastics Industry
, the opposite of the slim volumes
of poetry with colorful covers that fill my bookshelves.
Because once, years ago, on a Saturday before our
raucous son rang in the dawn, he was just
standing there in the bathroom, out of the shower.
I said Honey, what’s wrong? and he said Oh,
I was just thinking about a molecule.
 

Because he taught me about sublimation, how
a solid, like ice, can change straight to a gas
without becoming liquid first. Because even
after all this time together, he can still
make me melt.

“Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist” by Barbara Crooker from Les Fauves. © C & R Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the soothsayer was referring to today when she said, “Beware the Ides of March.” The word “Ides” was just a shorthand way of saying “15th,” at least in March.

And it was on this day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C., that Caesar was assassinated by a group of about 60 conspirators who called themselves “the liberators.” They wanted to return Rome to a model republic, and they were unhappy with how Caesar had consolidated power in his name, and that he encouraged people to consider him divine. One of the leaders was Marcus Brutus, whose mother had been one of Caesar’s lovers and whom Caesar helped establish in government.


It was on this day in 1956 that the musical My Fair Lady opened on Broadway, starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. The musical was based on the play Pygmalion by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Pygmalion is the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics living in London. He makes a bet with a friend that he can take a random cockney-speaking flower seller named Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a perfect lady by teaching her how to speak well. Shaw got the title from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who makes a statue of a woman who is so beautiful that he falls in love with her. Shaw wrote the play specifically for a famous British actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, even though she was 49 years old and his main character, Eliza Doolittle, was supposed to be a young woman.

Pygmalion ends with Eliza furious with Higgins, who teaches her to be a lady but then treats her badly once his project is over and he wins his bet. She tells him that he is a tyrant and a bully and that she will marry a young man who adores her. Higgins is too self-absorbed to believe she will leave him, ordering her to buy him a tie and order a ham, but she walks out on him. Shaw was adamant that the play end that way. He wrote an afterword explaining why Eliza would have married the young man, not Henry Higgins, despite the romantic tension between them. Shaw wrote the afterword after he learned that his leading man was softening the ending of the play by having Henry toss a bouquet of flowers to Eliza at the last moment, suggesting to the audience that maybe they had a future together after all. Shaw fought for his ending over and over, but ultimately he lost.


It’s the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann, (books by this author) born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a lawyer, and Richard’s two brothers followed their father into law, but Richard was more inspired by his parents’ love of reading, and he decided to become an English professor. He got into Yale and studied literature there, then went to graduate school and started to write his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had died in 1939 — there wasn’t much scholarly work on him.

While Ellmann was working on his dissertation, World War II broke out, and he enlisted. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services in London, and he took a leave to go visit Dublin. He wrote a letter to George Yeats, the poet’s widow, totally unaware that she was famous for refusing to answer letters or grant visits. But for some reason, she changed her mind when Ellmann’s letter came along, and she wrote back inviting him to visit her at 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin.

After Ellmann was discharged from the Navy in 1946, he got a Rockefeller scholarship to go to Ireland and continue his work on Yeats. He went back to visit George Yeats, and he said, “She produced an old suitcase and filled it with manuscripts that I wanted to examine.” More than that, Mrs. Yeats gave Ellmann access to more or less all of her late husband’s documents, about 50,000 of them — diaries, letters, notes, poems. Ellmann said, “It is hard to know how revolutionary my ideas are, but I do feel that I shall produce the definitive book on Yeats for many years to come.” And so he put together the first comprehensive work on W.B. Yeats. He published it as a critical biography called Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948).

He followed up his first book with The Identity of Yeats (1954). He considered himself a Yeats scholar, and when he was looking for a new angle on the poet, he remembered the unpublished preface Yeats had written about his meeting with James Joyce. Ellmann said he was struck by “Joyce’s impudence with his distinguished and much older contemporary.” So he decided to write an article about the relationship between Yeats and Joyce. From there, he found himself fascinated by Joyce, and decided to attempt a biography of him. In 1959, he published James Joyce. It won the National Book Award, and Anthony Burgess called it “the greatest literary biography of the century.”

Ellmann published many more studies of Yeats, Joyce, and other Modernists. After 20 years of research, Ellmann finished his last great biography, Oscar Wilde (1987), just before he died. It was published posthumously and won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Ellmann wrote about Wilde: “Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company. Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on his way to the loss of everything jollies society for being so much harsher than he is, so much less graceful, so much less attractive.”


The first Internet domain name was registered on this date in 1985, by a company called Symbolics.com. Before the Internet, there was ARPANET, which came online in 1969. A project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPANET originally connected large computers at four universities in California and Utah; it was used by computer experts, engineers, scientists, and librarians. Email was developed for ARPANET in 1972, and file sharing in 1973. ARPANET expanded and inspired other networks over the next decade. More and more academic and government institutions adopted the networking technology.

Prior to the advent of the domain name system that we use today, hosts were represented by their numerical address on a computer network. But the addresses were hard to remember, and if the site moved to a different IP — Internet Protocol — address, it had to adopt a new string of numbers. Associating the IPs with a name made it easier for people to memorize, and changing a location only required changing the numerical address associated with the name.

A list of early domains is populated by the usual suspects: tech companies like IBM, Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Hewlett-Packard. But the little-known company called Symbolics.com got there first.

In 1985, only six companies held .com domains. By 1992, there were fewer than 15,000. In 2010, there were 84 million separate domains; in 2019, the count is above 330 million.

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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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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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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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Read More

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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

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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

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Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

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