The Writer’s Almanac for August 3, 2018

“Ode to the Potato” by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

“They eat a lot of French fries here,” my mother
announces after a week in Paris, and she’s right,
not only about les pommes frites but the celestial tuber
in all its forms: rotie, purée, not to mention
au gratin or boiled and oiled in la salade niçoise.
Batata edulis discovered by gold-mad conquistadors
in the West Indies, and only a 100 years later
in The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff cries,
“Let the skie raine Potatoes,” for what would we be
without you—lost in a sea of fried turnips,
mashed beets, roasted parsnips? Mi corazón, mon coeur,
my core is not the heart but the stomach, tuber
of the body, its hollow stem the throat and esophagus,
leafing out to the nose and eyes and mouth. Hail
the conquering spud, all its names marvelous: Solanum
tuberosum, Igname, Caribe, Russian Banana, Yukon Gold.
When you turned black, Ireland mourned. O Mr. Potato Head,
how many deals can a man make before he stops being
small potatoes? How many men can a woman drop
like a hot potato? Eat it cooked or raw like an apple
with salt of the earth, apple of the earth, pomme de terre.
Tuber, tuber burning bright in a kingdom without light,
deep within the earth where the Incan potato gods rule,
forging their golden orbs for the world’s ravening gorge.


Today, in 1527the first known letter from the New World to the Old was sent to King Henry VIII of England. Earlier that year, King Henry had chosen Master John Rut, a mariner from Sussex, to command an expedition to North America in search of what would eventually become known as the Northwest Passage, a northerly route to Asia through or around North America. Rut set sail a generation after King Henry’s father had sent the first unsuccessful explorers into the icy waters of subarctic Canada, the expeditions driven partly by scientific naïveté and by the mistaken belief that, no matter how far north, seawater and ocean passages could not freeze.

John Rut was given two ships — the Mary Guildford, which he captained, and the Samson — and headed into the Atlantic from Plymouth Harbor on June 10th of that year. The ships sailed for nearly a month before being separated during a storm at sea, and the Mary Guildford continued on alone, exploring the Labrador coast before coming into harbor at the port of St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland in early August. On August 3rd, Master Rut wrote to King Henry VIII, and here is a portion of what he had to say:

      Pleasing your honourable Grace to hear of your servant John Rut, with all his company here, in good health, thanks be to God, and your Grace’s ship the Mary Gilford. [We] ran in our course to the northward … and there we found many great islands of ice and deep water; we found no sounding, and then we durst not go further to the northward for fear of more ice.

[And] then we cast about to the southward and, within four days after, we had one-hundred-and-sixty fathom, and [then] fell with the mainland. We met with a great island of ice, and came hard by her, for it was standing in deep water; and so went with Cape de Bas, a good harbour and many small islands, and a great fresh river going far up into the main land, and the main land all wilderness and mountains and woods, and no natural ground but all moss, and no inhabitation nor no people in these parts. And in the woods we found footing of divers [diverse] great beasts, but we saw none, not in ten leagues.

And please your Grace, the Samson and we kept company all the way till within two days before we met with all the islands of ice, that was the first day of July at night, and there rose a great and marvelous great storm, and much foul weather. I trust in almighty Jesu to hear good news of her. And please your Grace, we were considering and a’writing of all our order, how we would wash us and what course we would draw, [and] so departed southward to seek our fellow.

The third day of August we entered into a good haven, called St. John, and there we found eleven sail of Normans, and one Brittaine, and two Portugall barks, and all a’fishing, and so we are ready to depart toward Cape de Bas [as] shortly as we have fished, and so along the coast till we may meet with our fellow, and [with] all the diligence that lies in me [as] we were commanded at our departing. And thus Jesu save and keep your honorable Grace, and all your honorable Rever(ences), in the Haven of Saint John, the third day of August, written in haste, 1527.

By your servant John Rut to his uttermost of his power.


On this day in 1841, prolific children’s author Juliana Horatia Ewing (books by this author) was born in the village of Ecclesfield in Yorkshire, England. She was the eldest daughter of the Reverend Alfred Gatty and his wife, Margaret Gatty, a scientist, science writer, and children’s author.

In a memoir of the writer, Juliana Horatia and Her Books, Juliana’s sister writes that Julie was “at once the projector and manager of all our nursery doings,” originating each fresh game and idea, keeping her siblings entertained with stories she would invent as she told them, taking inspiration from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, and even from the woodcuts in a German ABC in the children’s library. Juliana set her siblings to planting garden plots, wrote plays for them, made bowers under the lilac bushes, and gave fantastical names, like “The Mermaid’s Ford,” to the places they played.

In 1859, Juliana founded a lending library in Ecclesfield, and in 1861 began her publishing career with the short stories “A Bit of Green” and “The Blackbirds Nest.” In 1866, Juliana’s mother began Aunt Judy’s Magazine for Children, giving it the nickname her seven younger children had for Juliana in her role as their favorite storyteller, and eventually printing most of her daughter’s stories for children. Juliana’s stories were wildly popular and would also, during her lifetime, be published as many stand-alone volumes and collections.

In 1867, Juliana married Major Alexander Ewing of the British army and 1869 published her first book, Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances, a collection of stories from Aunt Judy’s Magazine, followed by the book The Brownies and Other Tales. Her stories were meant to entertain as well as promote Christian values. And as her sister remembers, they showed her universal sympathy for the interests and troubles of even those who appeared to the Victorian eye as “unworthy,” for, to Juliana, “the value of each soul [was] equal in God’s sight.”

There were new stories and poems every year. 1871 saw the first volume of her Verses for Children, and in 1879 she published one of her best-known books, Jackanapes, a wistful tale of heroic sacrifice. That same year, Major Ewing was ordered to Malta, but Juliana was forced to stay behind owing to ill health. When he returned in 1883, the couple moved to Devonshire, then to lodgings at Bath early in 1885, perhaps to take advantage of its spas and thermal springs. Juliana failed to improve and died in Bath the following month. Her poem “Gifts” is gentle reflection on separation:
You ask me what since we must part
You shall bring back to me.
Bring back a pure and faithful heart
As true as mine to thee.

You talk of gems from foreign lands,
Of treasure, spoil, and prize.
Ah love! I shall not search your hands
But look into your eyes.

Although practically unknown today, Juliana Horatia Ewing was immensely popular in her time and still has a dedicated following of readers today. She was also enormously influential on others: Edith Nesbit, author of The Five Children and It series, was an admirer; Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, is said to have known her novel Jan of the Windmill by heart; and the founders of the Girl Guide movement named their junior-level scouts in honor of her Brownies.


It’s the birthday of the poet Marvin Bell (books by this author), born in Center Moriches, a farming community on the south shore of Long Island (1937). After a stint in the Army, he returned home in 1966 and published his first book of poetry, Things We Dreamt We Died For,to critical acclaim. Ten years later, he published Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See,which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bell went on to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 40 years, and served as Iowa’s first poet laureate in 2000.

Marvin Bell said, “Much of our lives involves the word ‘no.’ In school we are mostly told, ‘Don’t do it this way. Do it that way.’ But art is the big yes. In art, you get a chance to make something where there was nothing.”


Today is the birthday of poet Hayden Carruth (books by this author), born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). He attended college in Chapel Hill before serving two years in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and later he went to graduate school on the GI Bill, fell in love with jazz, learned the clarinet, and began to write poetry. He worked as an editor in Chicago, but in 1953, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the next year and a half in treatment for alcoholism and anxiety. He underwent electroshock therapy and left by his own account “in worse shape than I went in.”

Carruth then decided to move to the rural communities of Vermont and New York State. He began to farm, worked as a mechanic, hired himself out as a field hand, and wrote nightly, sometimes not finishing with farm work until after midnight. He freelanced occasionally, but his income after several years was a scant $600, and at one point he had to steal corn meant for livestock to survive. He kept up this hardscrabble lifestyle for decades, and his poetry reflected those on the margins who live by their hands: field workers, farmers, jazz musicians, mental patients, war protesters, lonely fathers. The writer Wendell Berry credits Carruth’s poetry for showing him that there was beauty to be found in places others considered “nowhere” as he weighed his own return to rural life.

In 1996, at the age of 75, his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey won the National Book Award. Carruth died in 2008 after complications from a stroke.


Today is the birthday of the journalist and war correspondent Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (books by this author), born near Dana, Indiana (1900). He went to Indiana University, and with only a semester left, he quit school went to work on the Washington Daily News. He soon made editor, married, and worked nonstop for three years. But he was restless and didn’t like being behind a desk, so he and his wife packed up their Ford roadster and took off on a 9,000-mile trip around the U.S.

When World War II broke out, he became a war correspondent, writing stories from the front from the soldier’s perspective. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work and was instrumental in securing combat pay for troops. Congress named this legislation the Ernie Pyle Bill.

He said: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

Pyle was killed by machine-gun fire on an island just north of Okinawa on April 18, 1945. When control of the island was regained by the Japanese, the monument to Ernie Pyle there was one of just a few allowed to remain standing.

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

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December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

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Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 2018

Today is St. Nicholas Day; tomorrow, good children around the world will wake up with gifts of sweets, oranges, and nuts in their shoes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

It’s the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, who opined, “writers are always selling someone out.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), who financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018

It was on this day in 1839 that 30-year-old Illinois state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

It’s the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (Los Angeles, 1963), author of Bel Canto and other books, who co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She’d complied in the past, but this day, she was tired.

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

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What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

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The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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