The Writer’s Almanac for July 9, 2018

“The Only News I Know…” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I’ll tell it You—


It’s the birthday of blockbuster best-selling author Dean Koontz, (books by this author) born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He grew up in an impoverished, drunken, and violent home, and after he went away to college he converted to Catholicism, he said, because it helped him make sense of the chaos of his childhood and to appreciate mysteries in life.

He sold the first short story he ever wrote and then got 75 rejections before selling his next story. Now, he’s one of the most highly paid authors in the world. Koontz’s books have sold 400 million copies. Eleven hardcovers and more than a dozen paperbacks have been No. 1 New York Times best-sellers.

He works 10 or 11 hours a day, usually five days a week. He says that on good days, he winds up with five or six pages of finished work. But on bad days, he ends up with only a third of a page. Rather than writing a quick first draft and coming back to it later, he revises each page of the novel, however long it takes — 20 or 30 times is normal — before he feels good moving on to write the next page. He said, “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

He said: “I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. … The positive aspect of self-doubt — if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it — is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image.”

His novels are often set in Newport Beach, California. They often feature intelligent Labrador retrievers, bougainvillea flowers, unethical scientists, and references to T.S. Eliot and Alice in Wonderland.

Dean Koontz said, “Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.”


On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting full citizenship to African-Americans and due process to all citizens. It’s one of the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth, and Section I reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Of course, states still found ways around the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly a hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Jim Crow laws, Southern black codes, and the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the early and unforeseen complications of the amendment, which we are still grappling with today, is the extent to which corporations may be viewed as “persons” in the eyes of the law.


It’s the birthday of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (books by this author), born Ann Ward in London in 1764. She married a journalist, William Radcliffe, when she was 23, and he encouraged her to write. Write she did: Her first two books were published anonymously, but her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), made her famous; her fourth, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), made her the most popular writer in England and set the standard for the Gothic romance. She published one more novel in her lifetime, The Italian (1797). Her last two books made a good deal of money, and she may have quit writing novels because there was no financial need to do so. She did keep writing poetry, though, and published a volume in 1816. Neither the poems nor her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondville (1826), approached the success of her earlier works. She was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti, to say nothing of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who fancies herself in the middle of a Gothic romance herself. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft praised her for having “a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery [sic] touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey.” Radcliffe kept out of the public eye when possible, so she was frequently rumored to be dead, or mad; in reality, she was happily married and shy.

“Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794)


It’s the birthday of another English Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis (1775) (books by this author), born in London. Inspired by the work of Ann Radcliffe, he wrote his first book, The Monk (1796), when he was just 19 years old, and it was an overnight sensation. “I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published,” he wrote to his mother. The Monk was violent and erotic and full of horrors, and no one wanted to admit to reading it, but of course they all did, and it made him so famous that he was called “Monk” Lewis from then on. He followed The Monk with The Castle Spectre (1797), a musical drama with many of the same Gothic elements. His last book was published posthumously; it was Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834). In 1812, Lewis inherited a Jamaica plantation, and on a trip to the West Indies to check on the welfare of his slaves, he contracted yellow fever and died at sea in 1818.

“To a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.” (From The Monk, 1796)


It’s the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of several hundred books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, when she was 25, and from the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year.

Cartland left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.


Today is the birthday of Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933) to a large extended family of doctors, scientists, and religious Zionists. He became a neurologist and then turned case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives before his death in 2015.

In 2001, he wrote a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. In it, he talks about his childhood in England during World War II; his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs; and the scientists whom Sacks never knew, but who were, he says, “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.” Sacks and his older brother, Michael, were sent to a boarding school during the war, where they were routinely whipped and bullied. In 1943, at the age of 15, Michael began exhibiting symptoms of psychosis. “My brother saw ‘messages’ everywhere, felt his thoughts were being read or broadcast, had explosions of strange giggling, and felt he had been translocated to another ‘realm,'” Sacks wrote.

To cope with the trauma of the boarding school and his brother’s illness, Sacks sought refuge in the neat, orderly periodic table of elements. He sometimes dreamed of a career as a chemist, and though he went into medicine instead, he still liked to give elements as birthday gifts: “Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.'” For his own birthday, Sacks filled balloons with xenon, a gas that’s much denser than air. Instead of floating, the balloons all dropped to the floor.


It was on this date in 1958 that Alaska’s Lituya Bay was hit with the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. Lituya Bay, which lies on the Alaska panhandle, is a T-shaped fjord about seven miles long and two miles wide; two inlets form the crossbar of the ‘T.’ The Fairweather Fault Trench runs perpendicular to the fjord; it’s filled with water and glaciers. Because of its shape and its proximity to the fault line, Lituya Bay has seen at least four mega-tsunamis in the last 150 years.

At about nine p.m. on July 9, there was an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault, with the epicenter about 13 miles from the bay. The quake triggered a rockslide from one of the cliffs: Forty million cubic yards of rock and ice dropped from a height of 3,000 feet, and splashed down into the Gilbert Inlet, causing the mammoth wave. An eyewitness reported: “The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. […] Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. […] They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck.”

There were three boats in the bay at the time of the quake and rockslide. One boat was engulfed by the resulting mega-tsunami, but the other two survived. Because the area was uninhabited, the two men on the small boat were the wave’s only casualties.

The mega-tsunami reduced the forest to a collection of stumps and bedrock, hundreds of feet up the shore, as it swept out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spruce trees with trunks six feet wide were splintered. Later, scientists were able to calculate the height of the wave based on how far inland the damage extended; they estimate the mega-tsunami was 1,720 feet high. That’s almost 300 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

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.”

Read More
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.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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