The Writer’s Almanac for March 9, 2019


The Winter’s Spring
by John Clare

The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.
No flowers to please—no bees to hum—
The coming spring’s already come.

I never want the Christmas rose
To come before its time;
The seasons, each as God bestows,
Are simple and sublime.
I love to see the snowstorm hing;
‘Tis but the winter garb of spring

I never want the grass to bloom:
The snowstorm’s best in white.
I love to see the tempest come
And love its piercing light.
The dazzled eyes that love to cling
O’er snow-white meadows sees the spring.

I love the snow, the crumpling snow
That hangs on everything,
It covers everything below
Like white dove’s brooding wing,
A landscape to the aching sight,
A vast expanse of dazzling light.

It is the foliage of the woods
That winters bring—the dress,
White Easter of the year in bud,
That makes the winter Spring.
The frost and snow his posies bring,
Nature’s white spurts of the spring.

“The Winter’s Spring” by John Clare. Public domain.


It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf (books by this author) delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter to her friend Violet Dickinson in 1907, full of excitement at the thought of a future, however uncertain, as a writer; she wrote, “I shall be miserable, or happy; a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages.”

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, but the extensive revision process took its toll on Woolf and may have contributed to a mental breakdown that delayed the novel’s publication. The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915 and received generally favorable reviews. The London Observer remarked that the book showed “something startlingly like genius … a wild swan among good grey geese.” It sold slowly in spite of its reviews; it took 15 years to sell 2,000 copies. The novel does show glimpses of what would become Woolf’s Modernist style, and what’s more, one of its characters — Clarissa Dalloway — would stick in Virginia Woolf’s mind for more than a decade, until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).


It was on this day in 1933 that newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation. For the next several months, bills were passed almost daily, beginning with the Emergency Banking Act, followed by federal programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

As part of the New Deal’s cultural programs, grouped together as Federal One, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers’ Project, which employed more than 6,600 out-of-work writers, editors, and researchers — among them Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and Ralph Ellison — and paid them subsistence wages of around $20 a week. The main occupation of the Federal Writers’ Project was the American Guides Series. There was an American Guide for each of the existing states of the time, as well as Alaska, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several major cities and highways. Not mere travel guidebooks, they were also collections of essays on various subjects from geography and history to architecture and commerce.

In addition to the American Guides Series, the FWP collected the life histories of more than 10,000 Americans. Under the direction of folklore editor Benjamin A. Botkin, the FWP writers interviewed people of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Botkin, like many intellectuals of the period, was deeply disturbed by the growing Fascist movement in Europe, and wanted to promote tolerance and pluralism at home. He saw the collection and publication of these life histories as a way to do that.

Perhaps the FWP’s most valuable contribution to American history and culture was the collection of the first-person accounts of more than 2,300 former slaves, which were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”

Of course, the program was not without its detractors. Republicans were convinced that FDR’s plans would ruin the country, and some considered the New Deal a Communist plot. Many of the writers employed by the FWP tried to downplay or conceal their involvement with the project, even as they drew on their experiences for later work. W.H. Auden called it “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.” Nevertheless, the project produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 “issuances” — assorted leaflets, radio scripts, and articles. Although states were permitted to continue Writers’ Project programs until 1943, the federal program was terminated in 1939, due to the country’s need for a larger defense budget.


It’s the birthday of writer Victoria Mary—better known as Vita Sackville-West, (books by this author) in Sevenoaks, Kent, England (1892), born to luxury in a mansion with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. Her childhood was marred by a difficult relationship with her mother, and she once wrote, “I don’t remember either my father or my mother very vividly at that time, except that Dada used to take me for terribly long walks and talk to me about science, principally Darwin, and I liked him a great deal better than mother, of whose quick temper I was frightened.”

She started writing early; before her 19th birthday she’d written eight novels and five plays. She was also prolific, going on to write a great many more books, including several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies. She is best known for her novels, including Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour (1932).

When she was 21, Vita married the dashing diplomat Harold George Nicolson, and the two — both bisexual — had what has come to be known as an “open marriage.” They enjoyed a close and companionable relationship, and wrote each other frequent and affectionate letters whenever they were apart.

One of Vita Sackville-West’s most famous romances was with writer Virginia Woolf. Virginia’s brother-in-law, Clive Bell, introduced the two in December 1922. Vita wrote of the meeting to her husband: “You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality … she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain; then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. … She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well. … I have quite lost my heart.” Virginia, for her part, later wrote that Vita was “like an over ripe grape in features, moustached, pouting, will be a little heavy; meanwhile she strides on fine legs, in a well cut skirt, & though embarrassing at breakfast, has a manly good sense & simplicity about her. … Oh yes, I like her; could tack her on to my equipage for all time; & suppose if life allowed, this might be a friendship of a sort.”

Vita was also the inspiration for what her son Nigel called “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature” — namely, Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography (1928). As Woolf wrote in her diary, “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.” Orlando was made into a movie, starring Tilda Swinton as the young nobleman/woman commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young.

Vita Sackville-West kept up one of the most famous gardens in England, and in addition to her novels, she also wrote several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies, including one of St. Joan of Arc.


On this day in 1997, Jean-Dominique Bauby (books by this author) died of pneumonia. Born in Paris in April 1952, Bauby was a journalist and the editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine ELLE. He suffered a massive stroke late in 1995, at the age of 43, and awoke nearly three weeks later to find himself a victim of “locked-in syndrome.” Although his mental faculties remained intact, he was almost entirely paralyzed, save for his left eyelid. Taken from his life as worldly bon vivant and a father of two, he spent his final year and a half in Room 119, in the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the Channel coast. His days settled into a routine of doctors and therapists, alleviated by weekly visits from his young children, with whom he could still play Hangman.

He also wrote a book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a Memoir of Life in Death. He would compose and edit entire chapters of it in his head early in the mornings, and then would dictate it, a letter at a time, to his secretary. She would recite the alphabet slowly and he would blink when she came to the correct letter, and in this manner a brief and beautiful book was born. The memoir was published in France on March 7, 1997; two days later, Bauby died. In 2007, the memoir was made into a film, directed by Julian Schnabel.

Bauby wrote: “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.”

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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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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

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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

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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

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

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