The Writer’s Almanac for March 7, 2019


Odysseus in the Land of Lettuce Eaters
by Michael Magee

I don’t like being a vegetarian
give me red meat to kill,
and a pair of drumsticks,
or some kippered barbarian,
a French Dip with au jus.

When you’re in a far-off place,
you need lots of protein
for hand to hand combat.
There’s nothing quite as tasty
as a plate of fresh Mesopotamians.

Or nothing like an Irish stew
made with real Celts,
and Abyssinian beef jerky,
or a nice Saracen stir-fry.
The rest is for your salad days.

“Odysseus in the Land of Lettuce Eaters” by Michael Magee from How We Move Toward Light. © MoonPath Press, 2018. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


On this day in 1923, Robert Frost’s poem (books by this author) “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favorite of his own poems, and he called it “my best bid for remembrance.” He’s remembered for many of his poems today, but that one is his best known and one of the most popular poems in American literature.

Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before, he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called “New Hampshire” (1923). He finally finished it and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He’d never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he’d finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.

While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.”


It was on this day in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964 “Oh Pretty Woman.”

The Roy Orbison version of the song is about a man watching a pretty woman walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version is about the subsequent relationship with that woman, who becomes a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman. The music publishing company Acuff-Rose, which holds the copyright for the Roy Orbison song, sued 2 Live Crew for copyright violation.

Among those who sent “friend of the court” briefs in support of 2 Live Crew were Mad magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, and the Comedy Central TV channel. Among those who argued against 2 Live Crew were Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of 2 Live Crew.

Justice David H. Souter wrote, “Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one.


It’s the birthday of literary critic and James Joyce scholar William York Tindall, (books by this author) born in Williamstown, Vermont (1903). He studied literature at Columbia University and soon after graduation he traveled to Europe. He had heard about the notorious book Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce, and he decided to buy a copy when he was in Paris. He said, “I went straight to Luxembourg Gardens and read the final chapters, and discovered that it wasn’t a dirty book but a fascinating one.” He also realized that by pure coincidence, he had purchased the book on June 16, which is the day on which the action takes place. He became obsessed with Joyce, and read all of his works. When he returned to the U.S., he started teaching a course in modern literature at New York University, and he was one of the first professors in the United States to assign Ulysses to his students. The book was still banned in the U.S. at the time, so his students had to read a bootlegged copy that was chained to a desk in the library. He went on to become president of the James Joyce Society, and he wrote four books about Joyce, including A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce (1959) and A Reader’s Guide to Finnegan’s Wake (1969).


On this date in 1857 it was wisely decided that a baseball game would be made up of nine innings instead of 21 “aces” or runs.

The National Association of Baseball Players decided this. They were a group of men in New York and Brooklyn baseball clubs playing under what was known as the “Knickerbocker Rules,” and they had just gotten together formally for the first time in January.


It’s the anniversary of the first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965), known as “Bloody Sunday.” Six hundred civil rights activists left Selma to march the 54 miles to the state capitol, demonstrating for African-American voting rights. They got six blocks before state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.

ABC News interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary to show footage of the violence. In the blink of a television set, national public opinion about civil rights shifted. Demonstrations broke out across the country.

Two weeks later, the March from Selma made it to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, federal court protection, and these words from President Lyndon Johnson: “There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.” When they got to Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong.


It’s the birthday of novelist Robert Harris (books by this author), born in Nottingham, England (1957). In 1987, he was working as an investigative journalist when he decided to take a vacation in Italy. He was lying on the beach, listening to the German tourists talking all around him, when he suddenly imagined that he was living in the victorious German empire. He got up and went swimming in the ocean, and by the time he came back to shore, he had an outline for a novel about what the world would be like if the Nazis had won World War II. That novel was Fatherland (1991), and it became an international best-seller.

Harris went on to write many other books, including Enigma (1995),  Archangel (1998), The Fear Index (2011). His most recent novel is Munich (2017), and The Second Sleep is due out later this year.

Harris said, “It is perfectly legitimate to write novels which are essentially prose poems, but in the end, I think, a novel is like a car, and if you buy a car and grow flowers in it, you’re forgetting that the car is designed to take you somewhere else.”

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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

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 25, 2019

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“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
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Sixteen years ago on this day, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq War.

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A Spring Break compilation episode tailored to kids’ tastes! Featuring Randy Newman singing a song from “Toy Story.”

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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.

Read More

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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