The Writer’s Almanac for August 7, 2018

“Riding the Red Line” by Eric Nixon. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On the subway
On a hot summer night
Riding the Red Line
Outbound to Alewife
So is everyone else
Standing in the packed car
Staring blankly at the
Reflections in the window
Stealing looks every so often
At the pretty mid-20-something
Sitting on the seat near me
Noticing that she is
Glancing sideways
At the paper the person
Next to her is reading
Well not so much reading
Since he’s got his eyes
Looking to the side at
Someone else behind me
Everyone is pretending
To look somewhere neutral
Everyone is experiencing
Ulterior motives checking out
Everyone else around them
Trying to be all sneaky about it
With each stop
The people change
The dynamics change
Keeps the subway car
Fresh and interesting
Just as long as she doesn’t leave
I’ll be happy standing here
Packed among strangers
With wandering eyes
And stealing glances
Alongside them
On this hot, hot night


Today is the birthday of the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (1876). She attended a teachers college and then married an army officer, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in 1895. They lived in Java and Sumatra for a few years, and that’s where she picked up her eventual byname. “Mata Hari” is a Malay term for the sunrise, and means “the eye of the day.” The MacLeod marriage was marked by infidelity on both sides. He gave her syphilis, which was in turn inherited by their two children. After their son died, the parents began to hate each other. They returned to Holland and divorced, and MacLeod took out an ad in the local paper telling shopkeepers not to give his ex-wife any credit, because he would not be supporting her any longer. In order to make some money, she began dancing professionally in Paris in 1905, and occasionally worked in a high-class brothel.

The exact nature of her spy activities is not clear, but she probably didn’t engage in much actual espionage. She was well known by sight all over Europe. She had apparently sold some outdated information about France to the Germans in 1916, and then later made a deal with the head of French intelligence to spy on the Germans in exchange for a pass to visit her Russian lover in the eastern war zone. The French became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she never was able to provide much useful information, so she was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917. One of her prosecutors later admitted, “There wasn’t enough evidence [against her] to flog a cat.”


On this date in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef in French Polynesia (books by this author). The Norwegian ethnologist had set out from Peru the previous April, determined to prove that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl and his five-man crew did carry some modern technology, like a radio, navigational equipment, and watches, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The body was made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes, and had gaps between the logs for the water to drain out. The cabin was built of bamboo and had a thatched roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it after a legendary Incan sun god who was believed to have walked off across the Pacific.

In three and a half months, the raft traveled 4,300 nautical miles, weathered two major storms, and proved that Peruvian Incans could have made the voyage themselves. Heyerdahl wrote a book about the adventure, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1948), and made a documentary film of the same name.


Today is the birthday of author and editor Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). Her father was the critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman, and she grew up in a literary household, making castles out of the books in her father’s library. She was working as a reporter when she got an assignment to write for The New Yorker about a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents’ difficulty dealing with the American medical system. The New Yorker decided not to print the article, so Fadiman turned it into her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). It took her eight years to finish the book.

She’s also written two collections of essays. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs. And in her other collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007), she writes about her many obsessions, from her childhood butterfly collection, to the lost art of letter writing, to English essayist Charles Lamb.  


At 7:15 in the morning on this day in 1974, a slight figure dressed in black stepped off of the edge the World Trade Center’s north tower and onto a wire he’d secretly strung across to the south tower. For the next 45 minutes, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers a total of eight times as crowds gathered below to watch him span the void. Suspended a quarter of a mile in the air, Petit knelt and lay down on the wire, once even looking down to the courtyard below as he reveled in the culmination of six years of planning what he called “le coup.” Told that police planned to send a helicopter to pluck him from his perch, Petit finally surrendered himself to the waiting NYPD, later claiming that their rough treatment of him was the most dangerous part of his stunt.

Petit’s astonishing high-wire act made him an instant celebrity and garnered affection for the brand-new buildings, which had been criticized for a lack of character. A number of writers count Petit’s performance as an inspiration, including Paul Auster, who translated Petit’s book On the High Wire from French and helped him find a publisher. Recently, Petit served as muse to Colum McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award, took as its central, driving image that of a man balancing between two towers, seeming to walk on air.


On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals officially and finally lifted the ban on the book Ulysses by James Joyce (books by this author). A serialized excerpt in an American literary journal had been declared obscene by the courts in 1921; when the novel was published a year later in Paris, it became a hot item on the black market. It remained outlawed until 1933, when Random House arranged to have a smuggled copy discovered by immigration officers, allowing the publisher to challenge the ban. The seized copy had been carefully doctored to include the rave reviews of important literary figures, since it would be the one submitted as evidence. The judge agreed that the book was not obscene or pornographic and struck down the ban, and an appeal a year later upheld that decision.


On this day in 1846, Gustave Flaubert (books by this author) wrote a stunning letter to his lover, poet Louise Colet.

The two writers met at a sculptor’s studio in Paris. Colet was married when she and Flaubert began their wild love affair. She’d gotten married young, to a Parisian professor of music, in order to escape a life in the French countryside. Once in Paris, she became a famous poet. During the eight years of his affair with Colet, Flaubert wrote his masterpiece Madam Bovary, about a woman who seeks out adulterous affairs in order to escape from provincial life.

On this day in 1846 — 164 years ago today — Flaubert wrote to Colet:

“Separated, destined to see one another but rarely, it is frightful … and yet what is to be done? I cannot conceive how I managed to leave you … your image will remain for me suffused with poetry and tenderness, as was last night’s sky in the milky vapours of its silvery mist. This month I will come to see you, I will be with you one big whole day […]

“You are certainly the only woman that I have loved. You are the only woman that I have ventured to wish to please. Thank you, thank you […]”

The following day, Flaubert began another long intense letter to Colet. In it, he wrote:
“I’ll arrive some evening about six. We’ll set the night ablaze! I’ll be your desire, you’ll be mine, and we’ll gorge ourselves on each other to see whether we can be satiated. Never! No, never! Your heart is an inexhaustible spring, you let me drink deep, it floods me, penetrates me, I drown. Oh! The beauty of your face, all pale and quivering under my kisses!”

**Translation Note**

The first letter (Aug. 7, here beginning “Separated, destined” is translated by John Charles Tarver and appears in his Gustave Flaubert as seen in his works and correspondence, published in 1895.

The second letter (Aug. 8, beginning with “My Deplorable mania”) is translated by Francis Steegmuller and appears in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, published in 1979.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

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.

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December 16, 2018

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December 16, 2018

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Writing

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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Having reached the end, he continues

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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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One more beautiful wasted day

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Standing around, watching people suffer

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