The Writer’s Almanac for July 25, 2018

“Recipe for a Salad” by Sydney Smith. Public domain.

To make this condiment, your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen-sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half-suspected, animate the whole.
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt.
And, lastly, o’er the flavored compound toss
A magic soup-spoon of anchovy sauce.
Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbaceous treat!
‘T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat;
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
Fate can not harm me, I have dined to-day!


It was on this day in 1897 that 21-year-old novelist Jack London (books by this authorsailed from San Francisco, on his way to the Klondike to search for gold. He was on board the SS Umatilla with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, who was close to 70 years old. Shepard and his wife, Eliza, who was London’s sister, mortgaged their house to afford the passage and gear for the two men. They had a smooth eight-day trip from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and then took boats to Dyea Beach, the start of the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was a difficult 33-mile journey through the Chilkoot Pass, but it was the most direct route from the coast of Alaska to the Yukon. When Shepard saw the Chilkoot Pass, he realized that there was no way he would make it. He gave all his gear to London and went home to California.

The Chilkoot Trail was brutal. The trail rose a thousand feet in the last half mile, and men had to carry all their gear on their backs because it was too steep for animals. Prospectors climbed in one single-file line. If anyone faltered and got out of line, they were not let back in. So many men were unable to survive in the Klondike that the Canadian Mounted Police mandated that all prospectors bring one ton of supplies, the minimum for a year there. So London had to climb up the Chilkoot Pass over and over, with 100-pound loads each time.

Once London made it over Chilkoot Pass, he was in Canada. From there, it was 500 miles to Dawson City, the outpost of the gold rush. After hiking through a frigid marsh up to his knees, London arrived at Lake Lindemann, the beginning of a web of rivers and lakes that would eventually lead to Dawson City. London reached Dawson City just as the Arctic winter was setting in. London came down with scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables, and was forced to head back to the ocean. He was not alone in turning back. Of the 100,000 potential prospectors who set out for Dawson, only about 30 percent made it, and of those, about 4,000 actually found gold.

London returned to San Francisco sick and depressed, but he started writing about his adventures in the Yukon. The Atlantic Monthly accepted his story “An Odyssey of the North,” in which he wrote: “On the bottom there was a cabin, built by some man, of logs which he had cast down from above. It was a very old cabin, for men had died there alone at different times, and on pieces of birch bark which were there we read their last words and their curses. One had died of scurvy; another’s partner had robbed him of his last grub and powder and stolen away; a third had been mauled by a baldface grizzly; a fourth had hunted for game and starved — and so it went, and they had been loath to leave the gold, and had died by the side of it in one way or another. And the worthless gold they had gathered yellowed the floor of the cabin like in a dream.” In the year 1899, London published more than 50 pieces — poems, essays, and stories. Early in 1900, he published his first book, Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories based on his adventures in the Klondike, and that led to his book The Call of the Wild (1903), which made his career.


 It was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of one of his most beloved works, Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). It was written in the final years of Mozart’s life, when things were not going well. An infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier, he had moved into a cheaper apartment, and he was begging friends and acquaintances for loans. But he wrote his last three symphonies, in the summer of 1788: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony in G Minor, and the Jupiter symphony. It is not known for sure whether Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.


It’s the birthday of novelist and playwright Elias Canetti, (books by this author) born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). His family was one of the oldest Sephardic Jewish families in Bulgaria, a family of successful merchants.

The family lived in England for a while, then in Vienna after his father died, then in Germany. His first book to gain much notice outside the German-speaking world was Crowds and Power (1960), about the mentality of crowds and how leaders are able to control them. After Crowds and Power became famous, people went back to look at what else he had written, and started reading his novel, Auto-da-Fé (1935, first published in German as Die Blendung). He won the Nobel Prize in 1981.

In The Human Province (1978), he wrote: “His head is made of stars, but not yet arranged into constellations.”


The Concorde crashed outside Paris on this date in 2000, killing all 109 people aboard. Four people on the ground were also killed when the jet crashed into a small hotel and restaurant. Shortly after take-off, one of the tires burst, and the debris struck a fuel tank, which ruptured and burst into flames.

The Concorde was the world’s first supersonic commercial passenger plane. Its first flight was on March 2, 1969, and it traveled twice the speed of sound. It cost so much to develop that it never made any money. It made its maiden transatlantic flight in September 1973, and at first it was only flown on two routes: from London to Bahrain, by British Airways; and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, by Air France. Regular service to Washington, D.C., was added in 1976, and to New York in 1977. It was noisy and expensive to operate, and eventually all routes were cut except to and from New York. Both airlines stopped flying the Concorde altogether in 2003.


Today is the anniversary of the first successful demonstration of a commercial electric telegraph in 1837. The technology had arisen slowly as an offshoot of experiments with electricity. Scientists had proven in 1746 that electrical current traveled quickly; the first suggestion to use it as a means of communication had been made in 1753, in an anonymous letter to Scots Magazine. Early attempts weren’t very encouraging; they were too dependent on weather conditions, too easily disrupted, and couldn’t go very far. Some worked but just weren’t practical, including a German design that used separate wires for each letter of the alphabet and numeral. The wires were submerged in glass tubes filled with acid, and the receiver had to watch the tubes and record the letters as the tubes bubbled. Another design worked over longer distances, but it was slow, transmitting two letters per minute.

British inventors Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph to be used as an alarm system. It had six wires and five needle pointers, which pointed at the letters on a plate. They first demonstrated it successfully on this date in 1837, between Euston and Camden Town in London. Two years later, the Great Western Railway put it into use over a 13-mile stretch from Paddington Station to West Drayton. Six years after that, their electrical telegraph helped catch a murderer who had escaped on a train.


Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis debuted at Atlantic City’s 500 Club as an improv comedy duo on this date in 1946. They’d met in 1945. Lewis was in New York with a friend, singer Sonny King, when they ran into Martin on the street. King knew Martin, and introduced them. Martin had been working as a crooner, and Lewis had his own comedy routine lip-synching to records. Their paths would cross from time to time, and later, when Lewis was working at the 500 Club and heard they were looking for a singer, he suggested Martin. They started heckling each other’s acts, and one day they decided to make it official.

They had first taken the stage before midnight, on the 24th, with a scripted act, but they were terrible. Skinny D’Amato, the owner of the club, told them they’d better do better for the second show that night, or they’d be canned. During an impromptu strategy session in the alley, they decided to go for broke and perform the whole thing off the cuff. Songs, vaudeville, slapstick, breaking dishes: nothing was off limits. They were a huge hit. Comedian Alan King remembered, “They didn’t get laughs — it was pandemonium. People knocked over tables.” In his memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story (2005), Lewis explained his theory: “You have to remember: Postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, Presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came straight out of the blue — nobody was expecting anything like Martin and Lewis. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id.”

They played to each other and ignored the audience, and the energy they generated through their improv was unmatched, even in an era of great comic duos. “Like Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby, we were vaudevillians, stage performers who worked with an audience,” wrote Lewis. “But the difference between us and all the others is significant. They worked with a script. We exploded without one, the same way wiseguy kids do on a playground, or jazz musicians do when they’re let loose.”


It’s the birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived via in vitro insemination. “In vitro” means “in glass,” so for years she was referred to as the first “test tube baby.” She was born in Oldham, Great Britain, in 1978, to Lesley and John Brown, who had tried to conceive a child for nine years. Lesley had blocked fallopian tubes, which meant her eggs were unable to reach the uterus to be fertilized. After trying several doctors, the Browns were referred to Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards. They’d been working on alternative methods of conception since 1966, and though they’d been successful with a version of in vitro fertilization performed on animals, they hadn’t been able to duplicate those results in humans, even after 80 tries. They were able to fertilize the egg, but the resulting embryos had only survived a few weeks after they were returned to the mothers’ bodies.

The doctors began the procedure in the usual way: retrieving the egg, mixing it with John’s sperm, and allowing the fertilized egg to divide for a few days in a special solution. But with the Browns, they decided to transfer the fertilized egg into Lesley’s uterus after only two and a half days, rather than waiting four or five, as they’d done previously. This time, the embryo survived, and Lesley had a fairly uneventful pregnancy until the very end, when her blood pressure became very high and the doctors decided to deliver the baby nine days early by cesarean section. Louise Joy Brown was born at 11:47 p.m., with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she weighed five pounds, 12 ounces.

Louise was followed four years later by her sister Natalie, who was also conceived by IVF. She was the 40th IVF baby, and the first one to have a baby herself, which she did in 1999.

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Mr. Cool is writing his novel under pressure

The astonishing Collin Morikawa was in the news this week, kissing the British Open trophy, something a man would rather not do with the Delta variant around, not knowing how many hundred folks had touched the thing, but he was excited, having won the Open on Sunday with a four-under-par 66, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad joking with his caddy, cool under pressure. Last year, the PGA, now the British, on to Augusta.

Some people have that coolness under pressure, such as the engineer who was sent to the guillotine but the blade wouldn’t drop even after several attempts so they decided to reduce his sentence to imprisonment but he looked up and said, “I think I see your problem.” Other people get into a tight squeeze and prepare themselves so well for defeat that even if they come through a winner, they can’t enjoy it.

Mr. Morikawa putted beautifully as a crowd of 32,000 watched from surrounding hills. He made a birdie putt on the 7th while the 38-year-old tournament leader chipped into a bunker and chipped from that bunker into the opposite bunker. The kid stood strong.

This, as all of us old coots, know, is the future. Some 24-year-old is waiting in the weeds who will snatch the prize from our tremorous hands and we’ll be forced to grin like good sports and congratulate the little twit when we’d rather strangle him with his bike chain.

I love young people, don’t get me wrong. We hung out with the nephew and his wife this week who are totally cool. My generation never used the word “totally,” we didn’t dare think in terms of entireness. We were “sort of happy,” or “kind of interested,” but we couldn’t commit 100% because we had no reliable authorities on style. I know people who’ve never shown their wedding pictures to the children because the sight of the pastel polyester would make them collapse screaming. The nephew and wife are totally into what they’re into and it’s awesome. We never achieved awesomeness. Awe was what you’d feel if Jesus appeared to you in person and touched your head and made you intelligent, you’d be awestruck, so you couldn’t use the same word for, say, the way someone’s hair looks. But now they do. My young people think it’s “awesome” that I’m writing a novel. I hope so but am not always sure.

I was working on my new novel as I watched the British Open and I could sense a strong field of 24-year-old novelists on the scoreboard as I worked on page 110 of my book and was filling the right margin with a handwritten addition — a popular radio minister is caught in a motel in Omaha studying photographs of young women in thong bikinis and though you can see this sort of thing on any beach in the country, underpants with less cotton than you find in an aspirin bottle, his great secrecy and sense of shame make the deed seem perverse, and he’s kicked out of the church and takes a job at a SuperAmerica pumping gas for elderly customers who can’t figure out how to insert their credit cards — and I sensed that my description of firm ovoid female cheeks had jumped me ahead of a lot of young Berkeley novelists who are dealing in anguish and alienation — and then on 113 I wrote a few paragraphs in which a 24-year-old guy is hitting golf balls on a football field and one strikes a lady’s cockapoo in the flank and this gentle dog, enraged, leaps at the golfer and bites him and its right front claw catches the earring in the golfer’s left ear and rips the earlobe and he falls to the ground screaming and incurs traumatic injury that necessitates the hiring of a life coach named Mallory who teaches remedial life skills such as (1) change underwear daily, (2) make bed, (3) brush teeth. It sounds weird but it’s very believable.

I’m calm but I’m fairly certain I’ve got the National Book Award nailed for 2022 and I’m happy about that but when photographers ask me to kiss the golden bookend trophy, I’m going to say, “Kiss my foot.” Old vets like me don’t do that. I’ll hold the trophy down at my side, very cool-like, like you’d carry a six-pack. “When did you know you had it?” a reporter yells. “I never imagined I didn’t have it,” I’ll say. “When you got it, you know it and it’s awesome.”

My mystification on the Connecticut coast

A quiet week at my wife’s family’s summer house on the Connecticut River, which sounds fancy but is a cottage full of furniture bought at yard sales. And there, this week, I make a big discovery: even after twenty-six years of marriage, I hadn’t realized the depth of her love of gardening. It was hot and she spent hours weeding a flower bed, three wheelbarrows’ worth, and came back to the porch happy and dripping with sweat.

When I met her in 1992, she was a freelance violinist in Manhattan, a Minnesotan trapped in semi-poverty by her love of classical music. We had a three-hour lunch, I fell in love. Nothing was said about yardwork. But here she was, in 2021, giddy after hours of weeding in the hot sun, the very thing I hated most growing up and so became a writer in order to avoid. I edit; I don’t weed.

The misery of weeding was what led to slavery. In the South, they couldn’t bear to work in the fields in that heat so they bought people in chains and beat them up. Slaveholders were people just like us who liked to be comfortable and that meant making other people hoe the cotton. You realize this on a hot day. The difference between us and the South is that it didn’t stay hot long enough in Minnesota for us to think of hauling people in in chains, but we would’ve done it, given time. But the beauty of love is that it leads you down a long path of discovery whereby you come to understand another person, and here was my love, sweat pouring off her, feeling exhilarated about weeding.

She felt like going to the theater that evening so we drove to Old Saybrook and went to a show at The Kate, a little theater named for Katharine Hepburn who had lived nearby. It was a comedy by the Ephron sisters, “Love, Loss & What I Wore,” and I noted, sitting down, that I was one of a handful of men in the room, fewer than a jury, and the thing got underway, and I sat silent, surrounded by laughing women. A lot of jokes about the emotional ties of various outfits. I met Nora Ephron once, walking along Broadway at 79th Street, and we stood and talked and I was struck by what a kind soul this famous funny woman was. So I’m disposed in her favor. But I didn’t laugh.

About halfway in, the play gets onto the subject of bras and boobs and here the real hysteria set in. Women screeching and shrieking at jokes that, had a man said one at a dinner table, he would’ve been shamed and maybe sent to his room. My wife, who is my judge and jury when it comes to comedy, was laughing. Boobs, the problem of flat-chestedness, the search for the perfect bra: all hilarious to the women around me, material for which a man would be heartily condemned as juvenile.

I got in deep manure once with a limerick I recited on the radio, which I still think is one of my best.

There was an old lady named Jude
Who, imagining her solitude,
In warm weather chose
To take off her clothes
And walk around town in the nude
And old men and rubes
Would stare at her boobs
And think thoughts licentious and lewd
She was eighty, Miss Judy,
And not a great beauty
But O how she lightened the mood.

The emails were brutal, I was accused of “objectification” and a childish fascination with breasts that’s been linked to sexual violence, but here was a roomful of Connecticut matrons laughing their heads off.

I think it was the hot weather that affected them. We are all sinners in extreme heat. You lie awake at night listening to mosquitoes and in the morning there’s no milk for your coffee and something snaps and you put on your mask and go to the store and — Sacré bleu! there’s a pistol in your hand! — and you tell the lady to open up the cash drawer. But this is a small town, and she says, “Oh go home and soak your head, Keillor. You don’t impress me with that little peashooter. Go back to bed and get out on the other side.” An old writer on the brink of felony is saved by the kindness of a neighbor. I’m sure it happens all the time.

What we crave, above all, is what's real

The books about No. 45 are coming out and one says he was deranged and another says that his own people feared for the country, neither of which I doubt for a minute, but I’m not up for reliving those years for the same reason I don’t plan to spend January in Norway: been there, done it, life is short, no need for reruns.

The January in Norway is a story my wife tells so much better than I can. I was sick with the flu in a hotel room in the town of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle; she was the one who went dogsledding and ice fishing in the arctic twilight in a cold rain and the sun never shone and the food was gruesome and everyone worked hard to be upbeat and detached from reality, and now when she recites the miseries of that week, people laugh like crazy, whereas I was in bed, mostly sleeping. The trip was my brilliant idea and I missed out on it and her telling of the story is brilliant, epic but brisk.

We have no plans to return to Tromsø. It has served its usefulness as an example of how unfounded enthusiasm combined with loose cash can lead to a dark place.

I experienced vast self-confidence in my twenties, which may have been a necessity for an aspiring writer. I hung out with other young writers, hoping to absorb talent by proximity, same as you’d catch the flu. We met at the Mixers bar near campus and I drank Scotch because that seemed like the right liquor for the writer I wanted to be. And I smoked unfiltered Luckies. What we knew about writers was that they were prodigious drinkers. Eight or ten of us crammed into a big booth and drank while disparaging any and all successful living writers from Bellow, Updike, and Roth on down. The combination of alcohol and disdain boosted our confidence. I imagine there are bands of writers doing the very same thing today. I don’t want to join them, any more than I long for Tromsø in January or want to read a book about Mr. Yesterday.

What I long for is to go back to last Sunday when I had planned to read to my daughter a long passage I wrote about her birth and childhood and how she developed into a big personality, loving, jokey, reading other people’s feelings, keen about details, but events intervened, and then Monday was furiously busy, moving her into a new apartment in a distant city, and then suddenly it was time to go and we hugged and she burst into tears and so did I. I’m not a weepy person. There have been many farewell moments when I should’ve wept and did not. What moved me was the depth of her love for her mother and me, the emptiness of the apartment, the strangeness of the city. “You’ll be fine,” her mother said. My daughter hugged me and wiped her nose on my black T-shirt, which amused her and so she did it again. I said, “Is it snot? No, it’s not.” She laughed. I walked to the door and on the way I passed gas and she laughed harder and then resumed weeping. I went out the door, tears running down my cheeks.

We drove away in grievous silence, my wife at the wheel. I searched the map on my phone for a Dairy Queen, thinking that I deserved a Butterfinger Blizzard but there were none nearby. Since Monday we’ve gotten reassuring texts from her that she’s doing well but I’m still miserable. This is an experience I share with millions of other parents. Who ever realized that simple concupiscence could lead to so many interesting stories and such deep feeling? I think of her on a swing, swinging as high as she could, laughing in the moment of weightlessness on the upswing. I think of her tonsillectomy where I gently, over her protests, placed the gas mask on her and held it until she sagged and closed her eyes, and afterward, seeing me in the hall, she stuck out her tongue. I think of how hard she laughed on the raft ride when a wave sloshed me and it looked like I’d wet my pants. I miss her. She’s entitled to independence, we being mortal and all, but I cherish the moment, our arms around each other, weeping. Did I say I miss her? I do.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, July 26, 2021

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“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: That’s the essence of inhumanity.” –George Bernard Shaw, born 1856

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, July 19, 2021

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On this date in 1799 French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone. Containing the same message in Ancient Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics, it enabled deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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Writing

Mr. Cool is writing his novel under pressure

The astonishing Collin Morikawa was in the news this week, kissing the British Open trophy, something a man would rather not do with the Delta variant around, not knowing how many hundred folks had touched the thing, but he was excited, having won the Open on Sunday with a four-under-par 66, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad joking with his caddy, cool under pressure. Last year, the PGA, now the British, on to Augusta.

Some people have that coolness under pressure, such as the engineer who was sent to the guillotine but the blade wouldn’t drop even after several attempts so they decided to reduce his sentence to imprisonment but he looked up and said, “I think I see your problem.” Other people get into a tight squeeze and prepare themselves so well for defeat that even if they come through a winner, they can’t enjoy it.

Read More

My mystification on the Connecticut coast

A quiet week at my wife’s family’s summer house on the Connecticut River, which sounds fancy but is a cottage full of furniture bought at yard sales. And there, this week, I make a big discovery: even after twenty-six years of marriage, I hadn’t realized the depth of her love of gardening. It was hot and she spent hours weeding a flower bed, three wheelbarrows’ worth, and came back to the porch happy and dripping with sweat.

When I met her in 1992, she was a freelance violinist in Manhattan, a Minnesotan trapped in semi-poverty by her love of classical music. We had a three-hour lunch, I fell in love. Nothing was said about yardwork. But here she was, in 2021, giddy after hours of weeding in the hot sun, the very thing I hated most growing up and so became a writer in order to avoid. I edit; I don’t weed.

The misery of weeding was what led to slavery. In the South, they couldn’t bear to work in the fields in that heat so they bought people in chains and beat them up. Slaveholders were people just like us who liked to be comfortable and that meant making other people hoe the cotton. You realize this on a hot day. The difference between us and the South is that it didn’t stay hot long enough in Minnesota for us to think of hauling people in in chains, but we would’ve done it, given time. But the beauty of love is that it leads you down a long path of discovery whereby you come to understand another person, and here was my love, sweat pouring off her, feeling exhilarated about weeding.

Read More

What we crave, above all, is what’s real

The books about No. 45 are coming out and one says he was deranged and another says that his own people feared for the country, neither of which I doubt for a minute, but I’m not up for reliving those years for the same reason I don’t plan to spend January in Norway: been there, done it, life is short, no need for reruns.

The January in Norway is a story my wife tells so much better than I can. I was sick with the flu in a hotel room in the town of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle; she was the one who went dogsledding and ice fishing in the arctic twilight in a cold rain and the sun never shone and the food was gruesome and everyone worked hard to be upbeat and detached from reality, and now when she recites the miseries of that week, people laugh like crazy, whereas I was in bed, mostly sleeping. The trip was my brilliant idea and I missed out on it and her telling of the story is brilliant, epic but brisk.

We have no plans to return to Tromsø. It has served its usefulness as an example of how unfounded enthusiasm combined with loose cash can lead to a dark place.

Read More

Flying through clouds and coming home

The class of 2021 has now matriculated into our midst, those lean exuberant people with lead weights of debt around their ankles, and they’ve set aside the commencement speaker’s advice to take this imperfect world and make it better and instead are trying to make car payments and avoid parental curiosity and enjoy some wild Saturday nights dancing in an amphitheater to a cover band and drinking buckets of beer.

But while they do, their elders are working assiduously to screw up the imperfect world further, such as the Texas legislature, which is passing a bill to allow anyone to sue anybody without having to show that harm was suffered. Their target is abortion clinics, but this revolutionary principle will mean people can sue you for looking at them cross-eyed and we will simply lock our doors and lead our lives on Instagram.

I have given up trying to make a better world and instead I’m working on my sock drawer and maintaining a small circle of friendships, starting with my wife. It’s a large project.

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A ball game, a book, and a brat: happiness

Being a 78-year-old unemployed orphan does not qualify me as a tragic victim and that is just a fact, plus the fact I am married to a woman who has a big heart, loves a good time, is fond of me in particular, and she is also able to read instruction manuals, which is something you don’t notice during courtship, your mind is on other things, but now in the twilight years when one is tempted to throw the new printer over the parapet and hear it crash on the pavement below, it is good to have a rationalist in my life.

So I don’t need to discuss my fear and loathing of washers, dryers, coffee makers, and air conditioners, their mysterious manuals, because that’s her department so instead I’ll tell about Amazon and their purchase of MGM this summer, which earned a bundle for my family so that people now assume we’re going to leave Minnesota and move to an island in the Caribbean. No way.

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Happiness comes to those who don’t give a rip

I am a happy man now that I know what the secret of happiness is, which, according to Buddha and Jesus both, is to give up wanting things. It’s just that simple. I’ve bought houses in hopes of happiness, taken vacation trips to Hawaii and Norway and Barbados, bought three-piece suits and shirts with French cuffs, and spent as much as $28 on a haircut, and felt vaguely dissatisfied after, but now I am 78, an age at which I expected to be cranky and of course there’s still time but now I discover I can’t get what I want because I’ve forgotten what it is. So there you are. Time solves another problem.

Happiness is rare for a writer, an occupation with a failure rate somewhere around 85 or 92 percent. If doctors had our failure rate, America would be a country of about 15 million, most of them not feeling well. The westward migration would’ve ended at the Mississippi. Why cross a big river when you’re already nauseated and feverish?

Luckily, we writers get to discard our mistakes, unlike doctors. In this line of work, there are no autopsies. I threw away two versions of the first paragraph, each one dumber than the other, and nobody will ever see them, just the one that begins “I am a happy man.” Two sheets of paper, crumpled, in the wastebasket, made me happy.

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Sticking my neck out, talking to myself

American culture took a sharp turn when the guitar took supremacy over the keyboard. I was a teenager, I remember it. Little Richard sat down at the piano in 1955 and tore the joint apart with “Tutti Frutti” (A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!) and Jerry Lee Lewis did the same with “Great Balls of Fire” but Elvis, who could play piano, picked up a guitar as a prop, and a nice Jewish kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, decided to be an alienated loner cowboy poet and a whole generation of loner heroes with Stratocasters blew in on the wind and there went the ball game.

The piano is not a loner instrument. It requires a piano tuner and piano movers. It is a piece of furniture. Playing piano implies home ownership. You can’t put it on the back of your motorcycle. The piano has social standing; it belongs in church or school or a barroom. It is an instrument around which people gather. Whereas the guitar became an ax, a weapon. Your parents wanted you to take piano lessons with Mrs. Lindquist but you went to a junk shop and bought a Sears Silvertone used for $7 and got a Mel Bay chord book and sat in your bedroom and taught yourself to play a G chord and a D7 and then started writing your own songs, about being misunderstood and mistreated and hoping to find a woman to leave this town with and head down the highway.

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The truth of the Fourth: a minority report

Nobody gives Fourth of July speeches that I’m aware of because what can you say about beer and barbecue except (1) take small helpings and (2) stay out of the sun and (3) watch what you say and whom you say it to. This is not a united country and the divisions may well extend into your own family, a beloved uncle may cling to cherished ideas that qualify him for full-time supervision lest he spread them to your children. Any speech you’d give about American democracy would consist of four vague generalities wrapped in platitudes and frosted with mythology.

In our country today, a considerable minority of our fellow citizens believe that the 2020 election was stolen in plain sight by left-wing mathematicians in Venezuela who devised algorithms to rig voting machines to overturn a landslide Republican victory and elect a senile Democrat and his communistic base to run the government who want to confiscate your guns and make everyone ride bicycles and live on tofu and kale and who invented a fake Chinese influenza so they could force immunization with a vaccine that makes people passive and accepting of state control, which allows vampires to move freely and drink the blood of small children, but in August, when the rightful president is reinstated and our borders are secure, we can breathe freely again and make America great.

I take no position on that. Strange things happen every day. I am only an observer; I don’t make the rules. As I have said on so many occasions, “You kids work it out among yourselves.”

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What made last Tuesday better than average

Back in Minnesota briefly and in the euphoria of returning home to the land of slow talkers, I called up some friends to invite them to supper at a steakhouse. As the submissive husband of a quasi-vegan, my steak opportunities are few and far between, and she happened to still be in New York, giving me a couple days of freedom to hunker down with other cavemen by a blazing fire and hack at the half-raw hunk of animal flesh and speak Middle English. But several friends declined. Invented excuses. An errand to help a son, a school assignment. As a longtime fictioneer myself, I can detect made-up excuses. The real reason, I’m guessing, was a lingering fear of contagion. My friends are worriers and if you google COVID you will be offered 1,437,893 things to worry about. Arriving from New York, I was unclean in their eyes.

You know me, I’m not a worrier. We have a division of labor in our household and worrying is her department. My job is to be a bringer of joyful enthusiasm. My family was evangelical and expected the world to end and in college I wrote dystopian stories, thinking it was the thing for a serious intellectual to do. For the same reason, I also chain-smoked and drank heavily. Around the time I quit that, it dawned on me that the Creator of the cosmos loves humanity and this includes me. It wasn’t a dramatic event like Heracles slaying the dragon and getting the golden apple, it was more like waking up one day and deciding to stop kicking the wall with your bare feet.

If I were a professional wrestler, the pandemic would’ve been rough on me, being a 300-lb. guy with big tattoos and weird hair and nothing to do but walk his Pekingese, but for a writer, isolation is an opportunity. And I found a young couple to join me for dinner. Two musicians pursuing nonmusical careers that engage them, both of them cheerful and looking ahead, and I ordered oysters and a salad and they ordered a humongous chunk of meat, which might’ve been a flank of antelope or the left cheek of a cougar, which they split, and, just in case their mothers inquired, a serving of broccolini.

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Sitting with friends at an outdoor cafe on Amsterdam Ave.

It’s a gorgeous June in New York and I feel sorry for the people who can’t be here because they’re in federal custody or have children in soccer programs. I walked in Central Park and admired the dogwood and magnolias and was passed by a tall stunning beauty in running clothes who was dripping with sweat and who, three feet from me, let out a burst of methane like the honk of a goose and did not say “Sorry.” It’s a feature of New York, beautiful women who express themselves freely and without apology. Hurray for outspokenness.

I was brought up to be penitent. I am not a New Yorker. But I feel lucky to be here in a city of great talkers. Words everywhere you look. Wherever people are, they take time to sit with a cup of coffee and consult, confabulate, kibitz, chew the fat, schmooze, shoot the breeze, spill the beans, spread the word, spit it out.

The New Yorkers I know don’t go for alternating dialogue, they like multiple centripetal contrapuntal talk, three people talking at once because when the talk flies the topic shifts and you don’t want to lose your chance to comment on that scoundrel Putin because we’re now on to the Catholic bishops who might deny Communion to a devout Catholic president after four years of playing up to a guy who wouldn’t know Holy Sacraments from a sack of potato chips and then it’s poor Lin Miranda accused of casting people of color who weren’t dark-skinned enough and the dang electric scooters that race through the streets delivering food and terrifying people and the Supreme Court allowing Catholic agencies to deny adoption to gay couples and I’m trying to mention the fact that some Buddhist monks in Tibet are fans of a song I did on the radio meanwhile others mention the candidate for mayor who apparently lives in Jersey whereupon a guy at the end of the table recalls having met the Dalai Lama in New Jersey once, a huge name-drop that blows my Buddhist anecdote to bits, and my wife says something about perfection and this leads the Dalai Lama guy to mention having met Don Larsen who pitched that perfect game for the Yanks.

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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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