The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018


Time + Distance
by Leslie Monsour

The tea you pour is black and strong.
It doesn’t taste like tea to me;
I must have been away too long.

It isn’t jasmine, spice, oolong;
It tastes like an apology—
This tea you pour, so black and strong.

Where’s that old fork with the bent prong?
What happened to the hemlock tree?
Have I really been gone that long?

I think I hear the saddest song;
It has no words, no tune, no key.
The tea you pour is black and strong.

You’re careful to say nothing wrong,
You seem too eager to agree…
Yes, I’ve been travelling far and long,

And now it’s clear, I don’t belong.
I watch you sash your robe, as we
sit, sipping tea that’s black and strong.
I went away too far, too long.

“Time + Distance” by Leslie Monsour, from The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. © Red Hen Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1818 that the state of Illinois was admitted to the Union.

Today Illinois is the “most average state” in America. It was given this distinction by the Associated Press, which analyzed data from the U.S. census, looking at things like income and age and race, as well as education, immigration, rural population percentages and more than a dozen other factors. The Associated Press concluded that Illinois mirrored the makeup of the country as a whole better than any other state. Second was Oregon, and then Michigan, and Washington, and Delaware. The “least average state” in the Union: West Virginia.

Illinois’ official slogan is the “Land of Lincoln.”


And 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. For the next 16 years, he “rode the circuit,” which meant that he traveled around to different counties in Illinois arguing cases while their circuit courts were in session. It was during these two decades on the Circuit Court, litigating disputes over canal boats and river barges and railroad charters and defending accused murderers, that Abraham Lincoln learned to give really good speeches. Twenty-one years after he was admitted to the Circuit Court, he was elected to the American presidency, and he’s now known as one of the best orators in presidential history.

He delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863 at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the Union soldiers who had died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg had been fought a few months earlier, in July of 1863, and there were more than 50,000 casualties. Eventually more than 3,500 Union soldiers were reburied in the cemetery. The speech is 10 sentences long, just 272 words. In it, he said that our nation was founded on the idea of equality and that the war was being fought over that idea.

In his second inaugural address, which he gave a few weeks before being assassinated, he stood on a wet and muddy Pennsylvania Avenue and talked about the Civil War, saying:

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

And he said, “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”


Today is the birthday of Bosnian writer Zlata Filipović (books by this author), born in Sarajevo in 1980. Someone gave her a journal when she was 10, and she had recently read Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and The Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, so she decided she’d keep a diary too. The following year, she found herself in the middle of the Bosnian war, which broke out in April 1992, and her diary became much more “Anne Frank” than “Adrian Mole.” That summer, word got out that UNICEF was looking for children’s diaries to publish, so she sent them the first three months’ entries. Foreign journalists spread the word, and the Filipović family was evacuated to Paris. The complete text of her journal was eventually published as Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo (1993). Now 37, she has a master’s degree in international peace studies. She co-edited the book Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries from World War I to Iraq (2006) and has contributed chapters to other books about war and human rights.

In 1992, when she was 11, she wrote: “Everything is being destroyed, burned, the people are in shelters. Here in the middle of town, where we live, it’s different. It’s quiet. People go out. It was a nice warm spring day today. We went out too. Vaso Miskin Street was full of people, children. It looked like a peace march. People came out to be together, they don’t want war. They want to live and enjoy themselves the way they used to. That’s only natural, isn’t it? Who likes or wants war, when it’s the worst thing in the world?”

Later in the diary, when it seemed there was no end in sight, she wrote: “If things go on like this, I’ll be 20 in a few years time. If it turns out to be another ‘Lebanon,’ as they keep saying, I’ll be 30. Gone will be my childhood. Gone my youth. Gone my life. And I’ll die and this war still won’t be over.”


Today is the birthday of Joseph Conrad (books by this author), born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), in a region that had once been part of Poland. His father was a poet and translator of English and French literature. Joseph and his father read books written in both Polish and French. By the time he was 12 years old, both of his parents had died of tuberculosis. He went to Switzerland to live with his uncle, but after a few years he decided he wanted to go off and see the world. He joined the French merchant marine, and began a long career as a sailor. He sailed to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, the South Pacific, and Africa. He joined the British merchant navy, and in 1886 became a citizen of Great Britain.

In the fall of 1889, Conrad settled in London for a few months. One morning, after he finished his breakfast, he told his maid to clear away all the dishes immediately. Normally, he would sit by the window and read from a book by Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare. But on this morning he felt unusually calm and perceptive. He later wrote, “It was an autumn day … with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their leaves gone were like tracings of an Indian ink on a sheet of tissue paper.” He began to write his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, which would be published six years later. It’s about a man from the Netherlands who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. Conrad said, “The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write.” He said he felt “a hidden obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon.”

His best-known story is Heart of Darkness (1899). It first appeared as a three-part serial in Blackwood’s Magazine, and was later published as a novella in 1903. It’s the story of an English riverboat captain in the Congo who is sent to retrieve an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has been living as a demigod among the African natives. The novella has been adapted several times, beginning with Orson Welles’ radio production in 1938. Most recently, it was made into an opera by Tarik O’Regan and Tom Phillips; it premiered at the Royal Opera House in London this year. The most famous adaptation moved the novella’s action from Africa to southeast Asia and set the story during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. The film stars Martin Sheen as an Army captain who has been sent to track down and kill a rogue officer, Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), living in the Cambodian jungle.

Conrad wrote: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, above all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”


Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world’s first auto show.

Neon is an inert gas, the illuminating properties of which were discovered in 1898 by William Ramsey and Morris Travers. The two extracted some pure neon from the atmosphere and contained it in a glass tube; when they stimulated it with electricity, the gas glowed red. The neon tubes became popular as novelties, but until a method was developed for the large-scale production of neon gas, there was no thought of using them as light sources or flashy signs. Claude hit upon a neon production method while he was working on a process to liquefy air. The tubes he demonstrated at the Paris show were about 39 feet long, and bright red. Soon other gases were used, to produce other colors: each gas has its own color, which serves as a kind of fingerprint.

Claude had envisioned neon as a light source, not an advertising medium, but within three years, there was a big glowing sign advertising Cinzano vermouth lighting up the sky over Paris. Neon signage was adopted with increasing frequency from 1920 onward, and by 1940 nearly every city in the United States sported a dazzling array. New York City’s Times Square became a world famous kinetic display of dancing lights, and Las Vegas’s appeal grew in direct proportion to its luminescence. Tom Wolfe wrote in a 1965 essay: “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs. One can look at Las Vegas from a mile away on route 91 and see no buildings, no trees, only signs. But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.”

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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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Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Edna O’Brien (1930), one of a select number of Irish artists who have been bestowed the honor of Saoi.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of Shirley Jackson (1916), author of morbid short story “The Lottery” and novel-turned-Netflix-hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake, described by victims as a very nice pirate, set out to sail around the world.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

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Today is the birthday of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863) who said, “My sufferings…are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911), who delivered his acceptance speech in Arabic when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

This episode’s got five concertinas, four melodeons, three button boxes, two tin whistles, and a partridge in a pear tree. Guests include Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Boys of the Lough (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

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It’s the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson (1830), who grew up very social and only gradually became reclusive.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

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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

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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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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.

Read More

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.

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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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