The Writer’s Almanac for July 3, 2018

“The Schoolboy” by William Blake, from Songs of Experience, 1794. Public domain. (buy now)

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
Oh, what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?

O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?


Today is the beginning of the dog days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. The name came from the ancient Greeks. They believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun’s heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the dog days. For the Egyptians, the arrival of dog days marked the beginning of the Nile’s flooding season, as well as their New Year celebrations.

“Dog days” has been adopted by the stock market because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish; it’s also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.


It’s the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher(1908) (books by this author), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan. She’s the mother of the “food essay” and always viewed cuisine as a metaphor for culture. She grew up in Whittier, California, and met her future husband, Alfred Young Fisher, at the University of Southern California in 1929. They spent the first three years of their marriage in Dijon, France, and she referred to that period as the “shaking and making years in [her] life.”

She found an Elizabethan cookbook at her public library, and was inspired to try her hand at food writing. Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), was full of sensual, evocative prose and some critics assumed a man had written it. Her 1941 book, How to Cook a Wolf, was addressed to Americans and Europeans dealing with rationing and food shortages during World War II. In it, she wrote, “When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner.” It has a few recipes, but it mostly contains meditations on the role of meals in relationships, and on sharing limited resources with spiritual abundance. Her chapter titles include, “How to Distribute Your Virtue,” “How to Greet the Spring,” “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving,” and “How to Have a Sleek Pelt.”

Author Anne Lamott wrote the introduction to an edition of Fisher’s letters. “Hers was a face anyone would naturally want in the kitchen, a combination of fresh peach and aged potato,” Lamott wrote. “You could see the weight and warmth and softness of her cheeks — the tender part a mother would cup in her hands — now grown so old.”


On this date in 1863the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The battle, which began as a small skirmish but ended up involving 160,000 Americans, was a Northern victory, and though the war would continue for almost two more years, Gettysburg marked a turning point as the last major strategic offensive led by the South.

The last Confederate charge of the battle was led by Major General George Pickett, who led 12,500 troops up Cemetery Hill to their obliteration. Half of his forces didn’t survive the charge. Over the three-day battle, casualties — including dead, wounded, and captured — were between 46,000 and 51,000. Nearly 8,000 men and 3,000 horses were killed outright, and they had to be buried or burned quickly. There was only one civilian casualty: Jennie Wade, who was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen wall and killed her while she was baking bread.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, survivors reunited at Gettysburg. Fifty thousand veterans traveled to the reunion; the youngest was reported to be 61, and the oldest was 112. The reunion culminated with Confederate survivors walking the path of Pickett’s charge, to be met by the handshakes and embraces of their former Union adversaries over the dividing stone wall. President Woodrow Wilson, whose father had been a Confederate chaplain, spoke to the reunion on July 4, saying: “These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they have established. Their work is handed to us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over; it is upon us in full tide.”

And on this day in 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the battle, almost 2,000 veterans — with an average age of 94 — attended another reunion. President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, which commemorates the 1913 reunion and reconciliation, and he said: “Lincoln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon its wounds. Men who wore the Blue and men who wore the Gray are here together, a fragment spared by time. They are brought here by the memories of old divided loyalties, but they meet here in united loyalty to a united cause which the unfolding years have made it easier to see.” On the front of the memorial, these words are carved: “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.” The flame can be seen from a distance of 20 miles.


Today is the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (1937). His first professional ambition was to be a journalist, and so he got a job with The Western Daily Press and, later, The Bristol Evening World, and wrote about a variety of things, from features to a humor column. He passed about six years this way, until he started working as a drama critic and fell in love with the theater. He began writing plays himself in 1960, producing a couple of one-act plays and writing for television and radio.

He had his first major theatrical success in 1966, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s the story of Hamlet, but told through the eyes of two very minor characters whose lives only achieve significance through their involvement with the story of the Danish prince. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and was staged by the National Theatre in 1967; Stoppard, at 29, was the youngest playwright to have a play at the National Theatre. Rosencrantz went to Broadway that same year, and when he was asked what the play was about, he said, “It’s about to make me rich.” Stoppard won his first Tony Award for Rosencrantz. He’s won four more since then, and many other awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Shakespeare in Love (1998).  


It’s the birthday of the writer Franz Kafka, (books by this author) born in Prague (1883). A writer associated with doom and gloom, the word “Kafkaesque” has come to mean absurd, dreamlike, and even sinister. In a letter to his fiancée, Kafka wrote: “The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly.” He had sexual anxiety, and felt inferior to his father. And it is easy to summarize his life as tragic: He only published a few short stories during his life and never finished any novels (besides his novella Metamorphosis); he had a few love affairs, but was never married; and then he died at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

But there are some cheerful elements to Kafka’s life story. For one, he was a competent and dedicated employee of an insurance agency, the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. He started there in 1908 and worked there steadily for 14 years, compensating injured workers. He had a good salary, worked six-hour work days, from 8:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. and worked his way up over the years. He kept records, wrote letters and articles, dealt with statistics, assessed his own business and others, processed claims, and represented the organization as a lawyer. Kafka himself tended to dismiss his work when he talked or wrote about it. But he showed up every day, and he wrote up the official annual reports, and was apparently proud of them because he sent copies to his family and friends. His friend the writer Max Brod wrote a biography of Kafka, and he wrote: “I spoke to one of the head officials who once worked with Kafka. Franz Kafka, so the gentleman told me, was popular with everyone; he hadn’t a single enemy.”

Kafka also had a great, even obsessive, respect for health and physicality. There is much made of Kafka’s time in coffee houses, but no evidence that he ever drank coffee himself, and he did not drink alcohol at all. He slept with his window open all the year round, always in fresh air, did calisthenics every evening at exactly 7:30 p.m., and he liked all sorts of exercise. He wrote in his diary in 1910: “I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby.”

And Kafka’s last love affair, with a 25-year-old woman named Dora Diamant, seems to have been a happy one. They met at a Baltic resort, where she was working in the kitchen. He entertained her by performing shadow puppets on the wall, and he read aloud to her. They played together and teased each other. He wanted to marry her, but her father refused, on the grounds that Kafka was not an Orthodox Jew. They were only together for a year before he died of tuberculosis. Dora said later, “Everything was done with laughter,” and, “Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was a born playmate, always ready for some fun.”

The "Old Friends" tour featuring Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky, and Garrison Keillor commences Wednesday, February 20th with a run of Minnesota dates! Click the links below for info on each.

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


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A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Did you know that when Douglas MacArthur became a general, he hired his own public relations firm to promote his image back home? Did you know Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream? And McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is known as the City of Palms but also has a good deal of mesquite and deciduous trees. And the McCarran Act prohibited the picketing of federal courthouses. You learn these things roaming around freely rather than at a table with a bunch of smarty-pants sitting behind their name cards and each with his own glass of water. But the information is out there. All you need to do is connect the dots.

My Executive Time has been crucial to me ever since I was 16 and I hit the wall in mathematics and it looked like I was headed for a career in dishwashing, but sixty years later, look what happened. The math whizzes got good jobs that turned out to be treadmills to obsolescence. New Math came in, smarter people took over, many of them from foreign countries, and now I see those old whizzes taking tickets at parking ramps, whereas I’ve become a huge success. People stop me on the street all the time and say, “You have changed my life. You say things I’ve been thinking for years. How do you speak for the common man the way you do?”

The secret is Executive Time. For six hours a day, I remove myself from so-called experts and wise guys who think they got all the answers and I trust in my own instincts. I am smarter about most things than people are who’ve been studying them all their lives. I can run circles around those people.

The only math I did today was to tote up the tip on my steak sandwich, 10 percent. Just move the decimal point. The waiter wept. “A thousand thanks, sir. I have student loans to pay off, from fifteen years working for my Ph.D. in brain surgery.” The guy is an international authority on the multifocal cerebral infarcts along the left palpebral fissure of the lapsarian cortex and he’s warming up my coffee.

People ask if I’m going to run for president. I tell them, “I’m looking into it.” It looks like a good job to me. The helicopter service is incredible, there are beautiful motorcades, and wherever you go, all the microphones are pointed at you. Highly educated journalists, trying to catch every word you say.

The only thing keeping me from running is the fact that I’m Canadian. I walked across the border in northern Minnesota, no wall, nothing but an ordinary barbed wire fence, you just duck between the top and middle wires and you’re in. I learned to pronounce “about” as “about” and not “aboot,” and I was all set. There are millions of us here, escapees from harsh winter and socialized medicine. I bought my passport in Buffalo for $50. Nobody can tell except that I’m a little bowlegged from playing hockey and I get teary-eyed when I hear “O Canada.”

I settled in Minneapolis and joined the Mondale gang that controlled the supply of coffee coming into the state. He sold decaffeinated coffee to Lutherans, which made them passive and inattentive and that was the secret of his power. We took a cut of the collection and owned the green Jell-O concession. Him and me were all set.

So the phone rings and this lady says, “You can’t say ‘him and me.’” And I say, “I just said it and I meant it.” There are people like her in Minnesota who make a person feel small and that’s why Executive Time is so important: you get away from those people. For six hours a day, it’s just me and my hair. It’s beautiful hair and it’s intelligent. It speaks very quietly. It says, “Stick with me and you’ll be amazed where we wind up.”

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth.

This bitter cold weather of the past two weeks has drawn many couples closer together, my wife and me included, and has bonded communities in wonderful ways and also raised the social status of plumbers. In New York, a water main broke at 99th and Broadway, turning a main thoroughfare into a river, and city workers shut off water, fixed the main, and repaved the street in twenty-four hours. It’s a neighborhood populated by expert complainers and lifelong grumblers, and in the cafés and coffee shops, you heard, for the first time since the Dutch ran the place, people talking with wonderment about municipal efficiency.

In winter, we learn once again that what it really comes down to is plumbing. Schools may close, shops, offices, but if your pipes freeze and the plumber is too busy with other people’s frozen pipes to tend to yours, you are up the creek. Executive vice presidents can take the week off and nobody notices, but the plumber is crucial.

As for the closeness of couples in cold weather, it is a social phenomenon for which we lack accurate statistics — the increased ratios of hugging to wind chill and of desire for skin-on-skin contact to the coldness of the night, and the subsequent rise of the birth rate in the fall months — but a few minutes ago she walked in to where I am writing this column and said, “My back itches. Scratch the upper left quadrant.” So I did. She said, “Scratch it hard. Use your fingernails.” I heard murmurs of pleasure. Cold weather makes the skin dry and it feels good to be scratched. This is basic animal behavior; it’s called “social grooming.” Baboons do it, lions, horses, vampire bats. Why not us?

My wife and I are a mismatch — she’s restless and I’m a homebody, she’s a near-vegan and I’m a carnivore, she goes to art museums, I go to hockey games, she works out daily and I occasionally get up and walk to the refrigerator. We could go into counseling and confront our issues, but for now, tactile spousal contact in that area between the shoulder blades seems to be the answer.

Silence is another winter benefit. The windows are closed, sound is muffled by snow, mouths are covered by scarves. I can hear the ticking of the big clock in our dining room, the soft ding of the hours. It is an 1830 clock, a grandfather clock that was thirty years old when my grandfather James was born. My father loved that song: “Many years without slumbering, his life seconds numbering. And it stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died.” This clock does not stop because I wind it every few days. To hear it ticking is to feel grateful for the basic fact of existence.

The main hazard of winter is not the lashing of snow but the danger of icy sidewalks, you creeping along penguin-like, and suddenly your arms fly up and your back twists and you enter a world of pain and the road to orthopedic surgery, all because your center of gravity is too high, you should’ve put rocks in your pockets, but the remedy is simple: stay home until the ice melts.

The beauty of winter, aside from aesthetics, is the fact that we go through it all together. In Minnesota, where I live, it’s universal. I am a left-wing Democrat and support the idea of equality though I don’t practice it, and so this appeals to the egalitarian in me. On a minus-forty day in Minneapolis, when I walk into the grocery store, I feel comradeship. The women pushing their carts down the aisles do not understand what a prostate biopsy feels like — how can they? — and the young people behind the deli counter cannot know what it was like trying to read a roadmap before GPS, and few in the store can appreciate the rigors of growing up fundamentalist, but by God, we have all felt the wind in our face and ice underfoot and we look around with a sense of kinship. We are citizens of winter. For all its faults, it has blessings to bestow. Praise God.

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.

A beautiful snowfall moved in Sunday around twilight and my love and I took the long way home from the store where we’d stocked up on provisions and drove around the lakes to admire the whiteness descending through the streetlights’ glow than which there is nothing in nature more beautiful. It belonged in a movie, a love story about a man and a woman caught in scandal, besieged by the opposition of their families, who come to a friend’s house for shelter from the storm and realize that the storm is beautiful. The trouble they’re in is utterly lovely because they have each other and the snow gives them an excuse to hide out.

In Minnesota, we dream of someday being snowbound, unlikely as it is with our enormous investment in snow-moving equipment. Even in the counties along the Canadian border, it’d be hard to get snowbound for more than a few hours. Nonetheless, something in us wants to be stranded, separated from civilization, roads impassable, power lines down, no computer, the cellphone battery slowly running down, until we find ourselves back in the 19th century or even a Middle Ages crisis with just a wood fire, some beer and cheese, and us ignorant peasants hunkered around it, telling dirty stories like in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Severe cold weather gets a person’s attention and encourages intelligent adaptation to real-life conditions by threatening genuine misery if, for example, you venture outdoors in your bloomers to tinkle in the shrubbery. This is part of the problem with our government today: it would work better if the national capital were Buffalo. Washington was chosen for its proximity to Mount Vernon: the Father of Our Country was looking for an easy commute. The temperate climate of D.C. encourages dreaminess and dramatic posturing and blather. If elected officials had to walk out of their warm homes, get into a freezing-cold car, start it, and drive on icy roads to the Capitol, it would give them a better sense of the real world.

I know about this because I was young and headstrong once and we boys considered it definitely not cool to dress warmly. Cool guys ignored winter and traipsed around hatless, gloveless, scarfless, jacket unbuttoned, hopping around snowdrifts in their sneakers, making no concessions to winter whatsoever. You smoked cigarettes, you drove fast, you didn't dress warm, you were cool.

Being cool is ultimately a bore. I used to be cool and I know. It is much more interesting to dress warmly and be able to wander around and look at the world and not think about your discomfort. I have a pair of insulated boots made in Canada so the instruction booklet is bilingual and I see that the boots (made of rubber, or “caoutchouc”) are of “première qualité” and “très robuste” in “temps très froid” even in “L’Arctique.” It puts a whole new shine on winter to think of it in French: it makes bitter cold, or “froid mordant,” less mordant, according to Sigmund Froid.

Wearing big boots, I feel clubfooted at first as Frankenstein's monster must have felt when he broke out of the laboratory, but at least I’m warm. I am trudging along in my peasant boots, enjoying the 19th century. I walk into the park and look at the snow descending quietly and the trees laced with white and think of Robert Frost’s famous poem about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. He wrote: “I know the guy who owns these woods. He lives in the village. I just like looking at it. My horse thinks I'm nuts, stopping on a dark night with nobody around. It’s rather quiet. The woods are lovely, dark, and pretty thick. But I said I wouldn’t be gone long and so I better get a move on.” Something like that. Winter is inspiring. Hundreds of poems have been written about standing on the beach and looking at the waves and I can’t remember a single one of them.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

February 20, 2019

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

Faribault, MN

Faribault, MN

February 20, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Paradise Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 21, 2019

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

St. Cloud, MN

St. Cloud, MN

February 21, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Pioneer Place on Fifth. 7:30 p.m.

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Historic Holmes Theatre. 7:30 p.m.

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at A Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 24, 2019

Sunday

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Crooners. Shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (1931), whose mother always sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. The exhibit featured works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and more.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

On this date in 2001, a working draft of the human genome was published. Scientists had expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes, but we have only about 20,000.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

For Valentine’s Day, a few excerpts of love letters from famous authors, and a poem by Connie Wanek, “First Love.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 13, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 13, 2019

Today is the birthday of American religious historian Elaine Pagels (1943), whose work “The Gnostic Gospels” was named one of the best 100 books of the 20th century.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 12, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 12, 2019

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born this day in 1809. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859) came out the year before Lincoln was elected president.

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A Prairie Home Companion: February 16, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 16, 2008

Originally broadcast from Bloomington with the Indiana University Violin Virtuosi, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, violinist Esther Kim, pianist Ignasi Cambra, and a student pit orchestra.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 11, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 11, 2019

It was on this day in 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, outside Cape Town, South Africa after 27 years behind bars.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 10, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 10, 2019

It’s the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898), who said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

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Writing

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

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Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

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Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

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A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

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Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

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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.

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