A Eulogy To Words

wrial2Sometimes the greatest tragedies come quietly.

Today marks a week since the passing of The Writer’s Almanac, one of the few modern examples of true literary culture edging – just slightly – into the American mainstream.

The Almanac has been around for 24 years. Hosted by its creator, Garrison Keillor, each daily program included vignettes about authors and other noteworthy people whose birthdays or significant events coincided with the date of the particular program. There were also interesting excerpts of important events in history.

The program continued with one or more poems usually chosen and read by Keillor. The show ended with his traditional sign-off, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” The theme music was a version of the Swedish song “Ge mig en dag”, performed by Richard Dworsky on piano.

Keillor has recently been accused of ‘inappropriate conduct’ by a co-worker at Minnesota Public Radio, which has the distribution rights to the show. He has been summarily removed from all his connections to the station, and, among other actions, the Almanac is no more. The details are murky. It isn’t clear what was committed; from crimes against humanity to repugnant boorishness to internecine office politics. But the Almanac is gone. That we know.

This loss is a terrible thing. The Almanac goes quietly, ‘with a whimper,’ but the magnitude of the demise cannot be understated. Thousands of writers, poets especially, saw a small sliver of light fall across their obscure desks because of the Almanac.

Ever heard of Athena Kildegaard? I hadn’t. ‘Till A Mother’s Poem showed up in my email the other day. Same for the poetry of Anne Sexton, Paul Hostovsky, David Romtvedt, Ogden Nash, Janice Moore Fuller, Dorianne Laux and hundreds of others. Each post in the Almanac included links to buy the works of these poets, which I’m sure was a huge benefit to them. Ever tried to sell a poem? Ever tried to keep the heat on in winter with income from your wordcraft? Give it a shot. Have fun.

Another casualty: The Poetry Foundation. Long fighting a valiant Thermopylae-esque battle for the attention of the American public, this beleaguered institution will crumble further into obscurity. Many of those who attempt to live by the spoken or written word will feel the effects of this ignominious end.

wrial4I think of all the people who made their living from the show too: The Almanac was written by Betsy Allister, Joy Biles, Priscilla Kinter, Heather McPherson, and Holly Vanderhaar, the program was engineered and edited by Thomas Scheuzger, Noah Smith, and Sam Hudson. Production assistance was by Kathy Roach and Katrina Cicala. I don’t know any of these people, but I presume they’re now using those fabulous writing skills on their resumes.

This is a blow to the English language itself. The Writer’s Almanac invited Americans to spend time with those who are excellent and exacting in their use of English. This, in turn, pushed those of us with lesser skills to be better with the craft. To avoid sentence fragments, for example. And fight the urge to grow wary when in fact we were weary. Great English avoids misconfusing conjunctions. And doesn’t use nouns to modify verbs (e.g. ‘travel safe’ is, ostensibly, a thing, ‘travel safely’ is a well wish). Great English makes whimsical and witty use of alliterations (you be the judge with that one).

wrial6But to my way of thinking, the greatest effect of the loss of the Almanac is to the American mind. I’ve long been suspicious of just how well the average American thinks, myself included. I’m dubious that we as a people place a high enough standard how and at what point we decide something is True. America today seems to be a land of sports spectacle and activism, neither of which lend themselves to nuanced and charitable thinking. Intellectual certainty abounds. Justice may rarely roll down like water these days, but arrogance about one’s opinions certainly does.

Poetry tends to avoid absolutes. It remains one of the few places where the dress could be blue, or gold, or both…and still be considered valid. And valuable. A poet once told me that a good poem has two completely different meanings, depending on how it is read –  a great poem has three. Poetry demands of us the ability to find both satisfaction and fascination in such unkempt intellectual complexity.

I met my future wife over Faulkner, but things really heated up when Cummings and Frost got involved. To say I owe my marriage, and all the glories that have resulted thereafter, to poetry is both overstatement and understatement. I mean, words…what can they really do for us? No doubt it was actually those relentless brown eyes. Then again, perhaps it was the waves, which did something to the shore that water never did to land before.

It may be that shutting down the Almanac was necessary; the justice of sins come home. Perhaps it is the victim of McCarthyist purges. Either way, the loss is incalculable. The exit of a Today Show anchor or a Hollywood movie producer barely rends the cultural fabric of America. But the loss of The Writer’s Almanac shreds it. All are bereft of so much more than can ever be said. Except, perhaps, by the poets, who are now even more quiet than they were before.

New Vignette

I’ve written another entry for the “Vignettes” tab. These vignettes are short, humorous (well, you be the judge) stories about my life in family medicine residency.

Numb Lips

I always know I’m tired when my lips get numb. It’s easy to work for so many hours that I forget when I started, which leads to forgetting at what point I should be hungry, or go to the bathroom, or drink some water. But the numb lips thing tips me off with a pleasing rush of certainty, “I am now – surely – tired.”

While it’s nice to know something like this so clearly – it explains the stumbling, the gritty feeling in my eyes, the strange metallic taste in my mouth – it often doesn’t matter. Worse, it sometimes just gets in the way. It isn’t until after a day and night on call that we’re required to make oral presentations of patients and what we did for them. Sadly, it is after call that we are, obviously, least sharp and, as is often the case for me, when my lips are numb.

“Welcommmmm, poo murning preport.” I’ll say, my thick mind wandering back to those glorious days as a kid in the Colorado snow staring with fascination at my nearly frozen fingers and watching how slowly they moved on command. I work my lips a bit and try again. “Thurvvv been about sevun-eighteen two-thritty admushings since we’ve been on shift.”

To make matters worse, usually coupled with my numb lips is a sudden feeling that some language I don’t know – let’s just call it Gerbrewfrenshish – is now my primary language. English has inexplicably become my 4th language and, despite all those ESL classes, remains tricky and annoyingly liberal with the observance of it’s own rules.

Tell ‘em about the UTI lady, quick! Everyone’s waiting! You’re supposed to be running morning report! All I need to think of is a good couple of intro words – in English – like “Our first admission was…”. But my fumbling mind, connected to my numb lips, manages to speak in tongues comprehensible to only the most charismatic, “Haciendaherr facshalom.”

My R-1, who somehow got sleep last night, looking at the pained and quizzical look on the face of our faculty attending and says, “He’s communicating good morning and telling you about our first admission.”

Will all the alacrity I can muster, acting firm and commanding but inwardly lying prostrate before my R-1, I manage to smear out the words, “Ghoood, Paahl. Why don’t eeuw prsant theshe caseis?” He looks at me with a slight smile and smoothly takes over my job. No one could be happier than me, slumped in my chair, trying to remember the pronunciation of that word English-speakers use to express a feelings of warmth and abject adoration.

Soon, my R-1 skillfully brings morning report to a close and the doctors start heading off in different directions. I yes! That’s IT! I’ve got it manage to catch the eye of my R-1.

“Tttthhhhanks, Paul.”

“Anytime.” He laughs. “Go home and get some sleep.”


Residency is filled with instances where I am accused of things that prove the accuser right as soon as I deny them.

“Doctor, people are saying you’re arrogant.”

“Uh, I’m not. They’re wrong.”

“See what I mean?”

It’s like being told you’re an alcoholic. If you even try to deny the charge, you’re still an alcoholic, but your also in denial. There’s no way to refute it…you just are.

I’ve come to see that often you just have to act very differently from what you feel when you’re accused of something. Usually, when the charges come, they’re from some 3rd-hand source and spoken of as if they’re a diagnosis. As if they’re gospel truth. The accusation is a foregone conclusion…the question is whether or not you also have the additional diagnosis of being in denial.

“Doctor,” proudly states a faculty doc, “We’ve concluded that you are suffering from a disease called ‘Punkproudstupidfailure’. It can be fatal unless corrected. We can only hope you aren’t in denial about it.”

What I think and how I have learned to act in this situation have become two totally different things.

What I think: I am in what can easily characterized as THE most scrutinized and regulated profession in the world. I’m daily hounded for being too timid, too aggressive, too dorky, too assertive, pandering, hurried, forgetful, uninterested, uncaring, dimwitted, crass, flippant, gauche, vague, overly detailed, or just plain pin-headed. Do you REALLY think you’ve clued into some problem I have that hasn’t come to light until now? Is it really the case that suddenly the clouds have broken, the great light of reason and good character has benevolently shone down and exposed a massive flaw in my character? And, by the way, do you even know who exactly is leveling the charge? Is it possible you’re just allowing someone to lazily spew gossip couched in important-sounding terms like ‘professional critique’?

What I DO (while thinking the above) is different. I ACT like my diagnosis is going to be very helpful to my eternal well-being. Gratefully, I accept the fact of my diagnosis – a sufferer of punkproudstupidfailure – admitting all guilt and looking to my sagacious senior doctor to help make me right. I won’t ever, of course, succeed in my quest now that I have my disease. But we can all try, can’t we?

During my first year, I tried to make a case for myself…obliquely hinting that maybe the diagnosis itself was based in myth, heresay and emotion. This ended badly. I watched in disbelief how my denials somehow proved their point. Now I just say thank you. ‘Thank you for your diagnosis. I accept. I concur.’

“I’m so glad you caught this problem,” I say, as seriously as possible. “I always figured I was a miserable failure, but now I have the diagnosis to prove it.”

A warm smile spreads across the expert in front of me, “The first step on the road to recovery, is acceptance.” He says. “You’re doing better already.”

Up To Speed

A few years ago, I realized that HTML and web-design was a learnable skill that was within my reach. It took some work, but eventually I was creating my own sites and uploading them to the web, etc. Back then, most average computer users didn’t really know how to do that. So I was ahead of the game a bit.

These days, I’d say the equivalent of personal web sites 10 years ago is the MySpace, Blogger, Facebook, RSS, MP3 thing. For me, coming from a time when I controlled every pixel in my web pages, the meddling of these sites is annoying and requires a new learning curve. The RSS feeds of digital info was in infancy back then.

So, after about a 5-year hibernation, the web has changed around me again. While these changes were happening, I was desperately trying to survive medical school and dreaming up the goal of writing a novel. Yeah, the old-school method of latter-day communication. Words on a page.

It seems to me that media is nowhere near the end of its morph. Just today the NYTimes ran an article about how the major music labels lost 20% of their profit this past year. Many people believe they lost out because they’ve been stupid in adapting to the changes that the internet is bringing to their profession. I agree. And I think publishing isn’t far behind.

So, I’ve got some audio editing software (Audacity), and I’m working on my first MP3, which will hopefully become my first podcast. We’ll see if I can garner a following. We’ll see if this goes anywhere at all. In the end, I can say it’s a fun process, never mind the result.