Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Writer's Almanac: literary culture in the mobile home

Half of me is utterly opposed to mornings. That's the sleeping half, of course. The half that is quickly becoming conscious looks forward a collection of delights that the morning brings: waking next to my wife Wendy, watching the sunlight filter through the remaining trees in our backyard and hearing birds sing, drinking strong coffee, making Wendy coffee, eating breakfast, and listening to Garrison Keillor describe the lives of writers famous and obscure on the morning NPR show "Writer's Almanac."

About 8:55am every weekday morning, the sparse piano tune announces the show. Keillor lives in Minnesota, or at least he used to (I don't keep up that well), and I always feel as though he is reading his script inside an iced-over hovel on a farm in the country. That's obviously not the case, of course, but Keillor crafts his cultural declamations in such an intimate fashion that I feel as though he, too, abides within and against a cultural wasteland. It's like an oasis in a desert. It's as if he is talking to me.

Keillor begins with a birthday or two of literary or otherwise notable figures. He shares facts about the birthday celebrant's life. Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday. He was born in St. Paul (very near to Keillor's heart) in 1896. Keillor often shares a pithy quotation from the writer, though I can't remember Fitzgerald's quote. Ah, Fitzgerald. It has been a long time. I read The Great Gatsby in high school (11th grade, 1992 - egads!), and I have not touched him since. I suppose it's high time I do. Oh, the ever-expanding reading list. But I will appreciate Fitzgerald so much more now that I am more thoroughly acquainted with the time period.

Our host then shares other significant events that occurred on each day. This week, however, is a little different. This week, Keillor is reflecting upon the Norman invasion of England in 1066. William the Conqueror, my namesake... I mean, via my grandpa, Bill Clifton, sort of. Today, Keillor talked about ways in which Normans impacted our language. They hailed from the northern French coast, of course, though I remember learning somewhere along the line that the Normans were actually of Viking descent (is that true?). The Normans, in good French fashion, particularly affected the language of food. They introduced the words gourmet, supper, and dinner. They also added beef and mutton, although we continued to use the Old English words cow and sheep. Food and philology, two worthy subjects close to my heart.

Keillor also closes each program with a poem or two. Today, he read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "The Pennycandystore Beyond the El." I think this is correct. My attention trailed off a bit here. Ferlinghetti was a leading Beat poet. He opened City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which I had the pleasure to visit ten years ago. It was like a pilgrimage. The other day, Keillor read a fantastic poem about coffeehouses in Seattle. I don't remember the name. I was driving.

It is such a brief program - five minutes? - like a shot in the arm to bolster our defenses against the soul-deadening effects of our modern world on the go, careless. Keillor ends with these famous words, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." I stay mostly well, and I'm told I do good work. I guess I should write him.

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