The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 26, 2019


Nineteen Thirty-eight
by Charles Simic

That was the year the Nazis marched into Vienna,
Superman made his debut in Action Comics,
Stalin was killing off his fellow revolutionaries,
The first Dairy Queen opened in Kankakee, Ill.,
As I lay in my crib peeing in my diapers.

“You must’ve been a beautiful baby,” Bing Crosby sang.
A pilot the newspapers called Wrong Way Corrigan
Took off from New York heading for California
And landed instead in Ireland, as I watched my mother
Take a breast out of her blue robe and come closer.

There was a hurricane that September causing a movie theater
At Westhampton Beach to be lifted out to sea.
People worried the world was about to end.
A fish believed to have been extinct for seventy million years
Came up in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa.

I lay in my crib as the days got shorter and colder,
And the first heavy snow fell in the night
Making everything very quiet in my room.
I thought I heard myself cry for a long, long time.

 

“Nineteen Thirty-eight” by Charles Simic from Master of Disguises. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, © 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the cartoonist Charles Schulz, (books by this author) born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1922. On October 2, 1950, “Peanuts” made its national debut.


It’s the birthday of novelist Marilynne Robinson, (books by this author) born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943), whose first novel, Housekeeping (1980), was nominated for the Pulitzer. Robinson seemed to have come out of nowhere, and people couldn’t wait to see what she would write next. But instead of writing another novel, she wrote a book of nonfiction about nuclear waste in England, and a collection of essays about philosophy and theology. She took a teaching job in Iowa and worked on the side as a deacon at her church. It took her more than two decades to write her second novel, Gilead, which came out in 2004, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Her other books include Lila (2014) and essay collections including The Givenness of Things (2015) and What Are We Doing Here? (2018).


It’s the birthday of the science writer Jonathan Weiner, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1953. In the late 1980s, global warming and climate change weren’t talked about very much, so Weiner wrote a book to help ordinary people understand these issues. It was called The Next One Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth (1990). Then he wrote The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize.


It was on this day in 1922 that archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon became the first people in more than 3,000 years to enter the tomb of Egypt’s child pharaoh, Tutankhamun.

The tomb was located in a place along the Nile River known as the Valley of the Kings — near where the ancient city of Thebes was and the modern city of Luxor is. In the early 20th century, the prevailing wisdom among Egyptologists was that all of the ancient pharaohs’ tombs had been found. But Howard Carter was convinced that not all had been discovered, and he kept searching. His benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, grew impatient after years of financing Carter’s fruitless expeditions and announced that he was cutting off Carter’s funding.

Then, in early November 1922, Carter was supervising archaeological diggers sifting through debris above some ancient workers’ huts when a young Egyptian boy bringing them jars of drinking water uncovered a limestone step. The workers dug up the debris and stones and uncovered an entire staircase, which led to a tomb. In the plaster that sealed the door the tomb was the seal of the royal necropolis police from the 18th dynasty, which lasted from 1555–1305 B.C.

Lord Carnarvon came to Egypt from England, and on this day in 1922, Carter broke the sealed door and he and Carnarvon entered the tomb of King Tut, the first people to do so in more than 3,000 years. Carter later recounted:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold — everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by — I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.'”

Inside were golden chariots, funeral beds, little ships for the pharaoh’s journey to the otherworld, plates shaped like lions and cows, a gold throne, gold statues, jewelry, and the child pharaoh’s toys. There was also the sarcophagus, used at the funeral to house the corpse (from the Greek, “flesh-eating”), a solid gold coffin, and the mummy of King Tut. It was the greatest array of treasures ever discovered in a pharaoh’s tomb.

 

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

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

We spent lives heavily in Vietnam and lost the war and now we wonder, “What in God’s name was it for?” Vietnam is a major trading partner, cruise ships stop in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. My nephew lives in Hanoi and works in a bank there. I could call him and FaceTime if I could figure out the time difference.

I can imagine that FaceTime, YouTube, Instagram, Google, by making the world smaller, might lead to an epoch of relative international peace, and Memorial Day might become a museum piece, and if so, we might consider a Marital Memorial Day, when we honor our divorced and bring some peace to our personal lives. The current divorce rate is around 40% and that is a sorrowful thing, and just as the VFW honors the war dead, knowing how easily the living and the dead might have traded places, so we should acknowledge that marriages crash and burn for reasons not understood and blame should be withheld and peace restored.

To live all the days of your life with your best-informed critic is a heroic venture and it’s worth honoring. Respect your failures and you will more fully enjoy your success.

The MMD should be held in the spring and there should be a lighthearted lunch with exes and their families. You sit next to your ex and toast each other’s health and catch up on the latest and recognize that you launched a romance out of hopeful idealism and though it crashed, the impulse was admirable.

You’re done with the yelling, the door slamming, the lawyers. Sit down and be decent, look each other in the eye, forgive. This would be more valuable in the real life of our country than the patriotic speech and Taps and the rifle salute.

The pandemic has brought husbands and wives closer together than ever and in some states, angry men have stormed state capitols demanding that the bonds be loosened, even at the risk of death. In quarantine, men quickly realize that they married women who possess powerful corrective impulses — who rush to clean up things even before they’re spilled, who straighten and adjust and set things right that men have left askew. Women will edit your sentences as you speak, and if you pause, she will finish the sentence for you. Men are grateful for women’s corrections but it can be exhausting to be held to high standards 24/7 and so, in order to escape supervision, men take up fishing. Fishing makes no sense whatsoever, to go to great trouble and expense to catch inferior game fish when for a fraction of the dough, you can buy salmon or tuna and broil it briefly and have something fabulous. That’s why so few women fish. Men fish because women don’t. For the same reason, they go hunting, go to blues clubs, sit in crowded sports bars and play video games. These things have been shut down by the pandemic. That is why armed men have threatened the woman governor of Michigan.

A Marital Memorial Day would be a small step toward civility in this anger-riven country. The country needs to calm down and learn to speak gently. Once we do MMD, then perhaps Democrats and Republicans will be able to talk to each other. If you can make peace with a well-informed critic, what’s the harm in talking to an ignorant one?

Some self-isolating thoughts about hair

Jenny cut my hair yesterday out on the balcony in the sun and she kept laughing as she did, which doesn’t instill confidence to hear your haircutter laugh, but at least the hair stays out of my eyes and the worst part (she says) is in back, and we’re in isolation so who cares, and at my age I’m not applying for a job, so it’s rather immaterial. If I wanted to do something wild with my hair, dye it deep purple with bright green stripes, now would be the time to do it, but I lack the motivation to be colorful. I’m a writer and an observer and you can’t see the world clearly if other people are staring at you: it’s see or be seen.

Hair was crucial in the 10th grade, 1958, when you had greasers like Trump and jocks with crewcuts and farmboys had shaggy hair and we cool guys aimed for an Ivy League look. My dad cut his sons’ hair and he was a carpenter and not so keen about fashion. I told him, “Short on top but with a part, a little longer in back.” Coolness was the point of it, blue button-down shirts, khaki pants, loafers, white socks, but now I have no clue about what’s cool, if anything is, and coolness is no longer a factor in my life. I’m old. The first section of the paper I turn to is the obituary section. People I know keep showing up there.

I went away to the U aiming to be a writer so I majored in English, not knowing how much I’d come to hate it. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and my teachers were his mortician. The English Department was across the street from the Institute of Technology and we writers loved to look down on the engineers. They wore the wrong color shirts with plastic pocket protectors and high-water pants with belts hitched way up under their rib cage and half-rim horn-rimmed glasses and short nerdy hair whereas we had long majestic hair and we wrote dark incomprehensible poetry. If I ever felt miserable about having to write a paper about Dryden or Coleridge or Milton, I just crossed the street and mingled with engineers, their slide rules in a holster on their belt, a race of dullards without a single amazing and original thought, and it gave me the arrogance I was looking for.

I think of this now as I consider what engineers have given the world, such as this little gizmo the size of half a sandwich that is always near me, a telephone that is also a camera, encyclopedia, newspaper, calendar, compass, weather monitor, phone book, and twenty other things I’m not aware of. Quiet studious men from the world of numbers changed the world in some wonderful ways. Bill Gates does not appear to spend a great deal of time worrying about his hair. Mark Zuckerberg has hair like a skullcap. Facebook is my link to family and friends. The nerds who invented Google gave a great gift us old people who forgot what “postmodern” means and can’t remember the year Rod Carew set a record for stealing home base and Google will find it for you: he stole home seventeen times. Seven times in 1969 alone.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an enormous year in my life. I was 27 and had a baby boy and needed to get serious and instead of finishing a novel that nobody would want, I got a job in radio doing the early morning shift and I shifted from tragic self-awareness to humor because that’s what people needed on a dark winter morning and that was when I started to feel useful and that’s when you find your vocation. And hair has nothing to do with it.

I write this on a laptop hooked up to a printer with an instruction manual written by engineers for other engineers, people who whizzed through college courses that to me were a solid brick wall, so it’s unreadable for me. Imagine if all your cookbooks were in French and you had to call one of your few Francophones in order to make pancakes. But never mind. Thank you, Nerdland, for the laptop and the phone. I could live without them but it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I apologize for looking down on you for your bad hair.

A few words while I wait for her to come in

I married a perfectionist and am glad for it especially during this pandemonium or pandora or veranda or whatever it is we’re going through these days, even my dream life is clearer, more detailed than in normal times, which now are only a memory, those evenings when we ate dinner in a crowded restaurant and sat in the tenth row of a theater and packed into a crowded train to go home.

She is a violinist, dedicated since her teen years to perfection, practicing many hours a day so that she could play in a string section and not stand out as an individual. I am a struggling writer for whom individual identity is crucial. She sat in an orchestra wearing black like all the others, suppressing the urge to wear a tiara with flashing red and green pulsating lights. I sat in a café, in a red T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans, boots, smoking a Gauloise, a Panama hat on the table, writing on a yellow legal pad, something original. It was a café (actually a cafeteria) patronized by engineering students and I was the only Gauloise/Panama person there. The others lived in a world of correct answers and I lived in a forest of wild surmise.

Had I not married the violinist, I’d be in a hospital, trying to breathe, having refused to self-isolate because I hate the term, I prefer the term “drift.” But thanks to her attention to detail, we live with our daughter in a clean apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and haven’t ventured outdoors, except to step out on the balcony, for two months. She is more sociable than I — most musicians are, having a common exclusive language — and so she misses the street life more than I do, but she studied up on the situation — a strange and dangerous contagion, an elderly and careless husband — and saw what needed to be done. And so I find myself in a quiet room with an empty schedule, an ideal life for a writer.

If I taught Creative Writing now, I wouldn’t be encouraging wild originality, I’d be teaching people to keep an orderly house and a spotless kitchen, hang up your clothes, and defend against interruption. A cluttered desk is a prison cell; a life of confusion is a dungeon.

The argument these days between Opening the Doors and Maintaining Quarantine is the argument between ignorance and knowledge and ordinarily I’d go with ignorance but I have a manager who is in for the long haul. She misses her work, playing in a pit, two feet away from two other players, a soprano and a tenor onstage singing Puccini passionately and projecting thousands of saliva droplets with every fricative, but she knows that people shouldn’t die from opera, only in it, so life is rearranged.

And so, when she wakes up in the morning and appears in the doorway of my quiet room, I hold out my arms and she sits on my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. We live day by day. All the big bets are off. The calendar is empty. The canvas chairs on the balcony that I was always too busy to sit in now have occupants. I look at the planter with the herbs my violinist has planted, an orchestra of mint and marjoram, cilantro, basil and rosemary, who will wind up in a stir-fry or what we in Minnesota used to call “hotdish” before we went to college. It’s the middle of May, a chilly spring, you can count the warm days on your left hand. But if the sun shines, even the low 50s are good enough.

Old man in a black winter coat looking out on the rooftops of New York, and a slim blond with violin scars on her jaw, and we talk about the boxes of useless unused stuff in closets that should be dealt with, and it brings to mind a fit of shelf-clearing years ago, an old unread book I opened and found, pressed between the leaves, a piece of yellowed handstitching: “Elizabeth Crandall is my name And America is my nation. Providence is my home And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, if this you see, remember me, when I am quite forgotten. 1845.” A fellow writer, long gone, and the thought isn’t original but the stitching is perfect. The perfection is stunning.

A simple lunch outdoors, a major occasion

Spring is here at last in our northern latitude and that is the news that transcends all other news. It arrived Sunday and we observed it by enjoying our first outdoor meal on our New York balcony, sitting in the shade of a potted tree, with two vegan-leaning friends and in their honor there were no 32-ounce prime ribs, but rather a green salad and a bean salad, both excellent, and oatmeal cookies. The sun shone down and we heard a finch singing nearby who apparently is thinking of moving in with us and raising a family so we must now buy some thistle seeds, which finches like and pigeons do not. We prefer finches, they sing, and they’re beautiful in the morning light. Pigeons are just rats with wings.

Spring, glorious spring. It is the Resurrection of Our Lord, a time of transcendence, and tomorrow I shall have my hair cut by my wife, beauty parlors being closed here still, not that beauty is what I’m after, just respectability. Sunshine is the cure for a good deal of what ails us — we know this now after six weeks of lockdown. I sit in the kitchen and agonize about the economy, politics, the demise of the performing arts, and then around noon I step outside and sit in the sun and suddenly I am not a citizen or a consumer or a performer, I am a mammal, along the lines of a muskrat or raccoon, a mammal who owns an apartment with a balcony where I am safe from predators and food is delivered to me regularly — in other words, a zoo mammal.

We discussed this over Sunday lunch, whether we will, when the All-Clear sounds, return to our busy lives, fly hither and yon, attend meetings, eat at restaurants, and we all thought, “Maybe not. Maybe the raccoon life is what we wanted all along.” Thoreau built him a cabin in the woods and raised beans and wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I think he could’ve done better in an apartment building with a doorman. In his cabin by Walden Pond, Henry was pestered by curious townspeople who wanted to know what he was out there for. A doorman guards against interruptions. Henry said, “Life is frittered away by details.” A pandemic reduces those details to the basics.

What we’re missing is a lawn and as a Minnesotan I miss that. Mowing was my first useful occupation and it organized my mind: you could think dreamy thoughts but still you kept to the lines. Going back and forth, back and forth, on a rectangular lot was what led me to be a writer: it’s really the same thing, except at the end, instead of a bag of clippings, you have an essay.

I went away to college to escape from lawn mowing and to become a writer, and then I fell in love with a girl whose parents owned a house with an extensive corner lot, and I courted her father by mowing it. I was twenty, my writerly pretensions competed with the pretensions of others, and lawn mowing brought me down to earth, and rather than launch a novel that struggles with man’s fate and maybe woman’s too, I set out to do what I’m doing now, writing in gratitude for a spring day.

We spent three hours at lunch Sunday and not once did we talk about the guy with the hairdo. We talked about children, about the goodness of our lives, about the odd beauty of a prayer healing in the Episcopal church. You associate prayer healing with men in cheap suits who handle snakes and whoop and yell, but in the Church of the Wing Tips it’s a simple moment when you go forward and a deacon hears your concern and lays hands on you and prays. It is sweet and mysterious. We attend church online now and pray for the sick and those in need, of whom we all know many. It is a deliberate and essential part of life, prayer.

Meanwhile, we sat in the spring sunshine and were healed of humorlessness and narcissism and anxiety about the Dow Jones. And now I pray for you in Arizona and Texas and Florida, languishing in 100-degree heat. Come north. Life is good.

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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). 

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