The Writer’s Almanac for August 1, 2019


iPoem
by George Bilgere

Someone’s taken a bite
from my laptop’s glowing apple,
the damaged fruit of our disobedience,
of which we must constantly be reminded.

There’s the fatal crescent, the dark smile
of Eve, who never dreamed of a laptop,
who, in fact, didn’t even have clothes,
or anything else for that matter,

which was probably the nicest thing
about the Garden, I’m thinking,

as I sit here in the cafe
with my expensive computer,
afraid to get up even for a minute
in order to go to the bathroom
because someone might steal it

in this fallen world she invented
with a single bite
of an apple nobody, and I mean
nobody,
was going to tell her not to eat.

 

“iPoem” by George Bilgere from Imperial. © University of Pittsburgh, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Today is the birthday of Maria Mitchell (books by this author), the first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. Although the American essayist Hannah Crocker explained that same year in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women that it was then a woman’s “province to soothe the turbulent passions of men … to shine in the domestic circle” and that “it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men,” Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents believed that girls should have the same access to education and the same chance to aspire to high goals as boys, and they raised all 10 of their children as equals.

Maria’s early interest in science and the stars came from her father, a dedicated amateur astronomer who shared with all his children what he saw as physical evidence of God in the natural world, although Maria was the only child interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. She would later say, in a quote recorded in NASA’s profile of her, that we should “not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe,” because “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”

By age 12, Maria was assisting her father with his astronomical observations and data, and just five years later opened and ran her own school for girls, training them in the sciences and math. In 1838, she became the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum and began spending her evenings in an observatory her father had built atop the town’s bank.

On October 1, 1848, a crisp, clear autumn evening, Maria focused her father’s telescope on a distant star. The light was faint and blurry, and Maria suddenly realized she was looking not at a star, but a comet; she recorded its coordinates, and when she saw the next night that the fuzzy light had moved, she was sure. Maria shared her discovery with her father, who wrote to the Harvard Observatory, who in turn passed her name on to the king of Denmark, who had pledged a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet so distant that it could only be seen through a telescope. Maria was awarded the medal the following year, and the comet became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Mitchell’s list of firsts is impressive: She’d made the first American comet sighting; in 1848, she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1853, she became the first woman to earn an advanced degree; and in 1865, she became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Vassar Female College as their astronomy professor and the head of their observatory, making her the first female astronomy professor in American history.

Mitchell also became a devoted anti-slavery activist and suffragette, with friends such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women.


Herman Melville was born (books by this author) on this day in 1819 in New York City. The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman’s time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense.

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he’d likely expected: The cruelties he experience on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor’s yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville’s first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn’t possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville’s younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels — which he probably shared with his wife — a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville’s power of language “unparalleled,” while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville’s fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville’s career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he’d experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville’s masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.


Today is the birthday of the man who composed the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born on the family plantation in what is now Carroll County, Maryland (1779). During the War of 1812, he was aboard a British ship off the coast of Baltimore negotiating a prisoner exchange and became aware of an impending British attack on the nearby Fort McHenry. He was held captive and for two days forced to watch the bombardment of the unsuspecting American troops. And after being released, he wrote a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” in which he recounted the sight of the flag still waving through the debris of battle. The poem was fitted to a popular English tune of the day and soon became widely known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916, and Congress followed with a resolution in 1931, signed by President Hoover. Key later authored a book on religion and literature and had a career as a lawyer.


It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.” James Dennis “Jim” Carroll (books by this author), born in Manhattan, New York (1949.) He grew up on the Lower East Side, a talented student and basketball player.

He published The Basketball Diaries (1978), excerpts of which had been picked up by The Paris Review.

His books of poems include Living at the Movies, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 22.

At the prodding of his friend Patti Smith, he launched The Jim Carroll Band in the ’80s. His albums include Catholic Boy (1980), Dry Dreams (1982), and I Write Your Name (1983).

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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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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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