The Writer’s Almanac for November 1, 2018


Flowers
by Linda Pastan

 

The text for today’s poem is not available. The collection in which it appears, Traveling Light, may be purchased here.


It was on this day, seven years apart, that two of Shakespeare’s plays (books by this author)were performed for the first time: Othello in 1604, and The Tempest in 1611.

Othello was performed for the court of James I. In the “Accounts of the Revels at Court” from 1604, there is an entry that says: “By the Kings Maiesties plaiers. Hallamas Day being the first of Nouembar, A play in the Banketinge house at Whithall called The Moor of Venis. Shaxberd.” Othello, the Moor of Venice was performed several more times before Shakespeare died in 1616, but it wasn’t printed until 1622.

Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend and the leading man in his acting company, probably played the first Othello, just as he played Hamlet, King Lear, and Richard III. He definitely played him in later productions, and a poet described Othello as Burbage’s “chiefest part, / Wherein beyond the rest he moved the heart.” King James was a scholar himself and a serious patron of the arts — he gave his name to the King James Bible, and he and his wife particularly enjoyed theater, and so many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed before the royal court. Macbeth was written specifically for James, who was fascinated by witchcraft. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who preceded James, an average of six or seven plays were performed each year in the royal court. The court of James I averaged more than 20 each year.

And it was on this day in 1611 that The Tempest was first performed, once again for the court of James I. The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a powerful magician and the former Duke of Milan who is exiled to a remote island with his daughter. He conjures up a storm to shipwreck his brother, who stole his throne. Prospero is one of the only Shakespeare protagonists who is not based on a known historical figure. But in 2008, a retired policeman-turned-amateur historian from Scotland named Brian Moffatt self-published a book called Death Resurrection and the Sword. In it, he explained his theory that Prospero is based on the real-life Francis Stewart, the Fifth Earl of Bothwell. He was the king’s cousin, but he turned against James. He and his wife were said to be practitioners of witchcraft and magic, and Bothwell apparently tried to cast a spell to conjure up a storm and shipwreck his cousin, James, as he returned from Denmark with his new bride. The spell didn’t work, and Bothwell was tried and acquitted, but later exiled, and he ended up dying in Naples.

Because The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last major play, a lot of people think that Prospero is meant to stand for Shakespeare himself, and that his last speech, when he gives up his powers, is Shakespeare’s own comment about the end of his career: “To the dread rattling thunder / Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak / With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory / Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up / The pine and cedar: graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth / By my so potent art. But this rough magic / I here abjure; and, when I have required / Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — / To work mine end upon their senses, that / This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.”

The theater scene at James’ court must have gone downhill after Shakespeare’s day, because a few years later, in 1614, a courtier wrote to his friend complaining of the constant plays: “We have Plays at Court every night, — wherein they shew great patience, being for the most part such poor stuff that, instead of delight, they send the auditory away with discontent. Indeed our Poets’ brains and inventions are grown very dry, insomuch that of five new Plays there is not one that pleases, and therefore they are driven to furbish over their old; which stand them in best stead and bring them most profit.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Susanna Clarke, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1959). She worked in publishing, then went to Italy to teach English, and while she was there she said: “I had a kind of waking dream about a man in 18th-century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background — he’d been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong.”

She decided to write a novel about this character, even though, as she said, “I really like magicians, but there was no reason to suppose anyone else would.” She took a five-day science-fiction and fantasy class, and one of her teachers was so impressed with a short story she wrote in the workshop that he sent it to his friend Neil Gaiman, who showed it to an editor, who called her up and offered to publish it. So she started publishing short fiction, but her novel was slow-going. She was working as a cookbook editor for Simon & Schuster, and for years she got up and started writing at 5:30 in the morning, wrote for about three hours, and then went off to her day job. The novel took her 10 years to write, but finally she was done with the manuscript, called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s the story of two wizards, one a handsome and charismatic young man named Jonathan Strange and one an uptight scholar named Gilbert Norrell. It isn’t a book of high fantasy as much as a comedy of manners and a history of early 19th-century England during the Napoleonic Wars — with a lot of magic thrown in. When it was finally published, Susanna Clarke got as many comparisons to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as to any fantasy writer.

But publishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell wasn’t easy — it was 800 pages long, and the first few publishers turned it down, saying that it would be impossible to market such a book. But then Bloomsbury picked it up and was so sure it would be a success that they offered her a huge advance. Sure enough, the book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for about three months.


The Arecibo Observatory opened on this date in 1963. At a diameter of a thousand feet, it’s the largest single-aperture telescope ever built. It’s also got the largest focusing dish in the world, which gathers electromagnetic waves from space. Located near the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, it’s close to the equator, which enables it to “see” (via radio waves) all the planets in the solar system; within six months of its opening, it enabled scientists to study the rotation rate of Mercury and determine that it rotated every 59 days, rather than 88 as was previously thought. It’s also been used for military purposes like locating Soviet radar installations by tracking their signals as they were reflected off the moon. It’s provided the first full imaging of an asteroid and also led to the first discovery of planets outside our solar system.

In 1999, it began collecting data for the SETI Institute; SETI stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” and the organization looks for deliberate radio or optical signals from other planets. The Arecibo Observatory also sends data over broadband to the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers, who, through the Einstein@Home program, donate their computers to be used for data analysis during periods when they would otherwise be idle. Eight years ago, three such volunteers in Iowa and Germany discovered a previously unknown pulsar, 17,000 light years from Earth.


The first medical school for women opened in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1848. It was started by Samuel Gregory, who named it the Boston Female Medical College. The first class — 12 women in all — graduated just two years later, in 1850. Gregory’s own formal medical training consisted of a summer lecture course that he had taken in anatomy and physiology. He wasn’t remotely a supporter of women’s rights, but he believed it was unseemly for male doctors to assist women in childbirth, so the college was mostly intended to serve as a school for midwives at first. In 1856, the school’s name was changed to the New England Female Medical College; it named among its graduates Rebecca Lee Crumper, the first African-American to earn a medical degree, which she did in 1864.


The “match race of the century” between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was run on this date in 1938. Seabiscuit had become something of a kindred spirit to dispirited Americans in the grip of the Great Depression: He was little, he was ugly, his legs were crooked, and he was plagued by frequent injuries. He was named for his sire, Hard Tack; a “sea biscuit” is another name for the hard bread eaten by sailors. Early in his racing career, he had been unreliable — sometimes blazing fast, sometimes lazy and tough to motivate — and he liked to overeat and oversleep. In spite of being trained by one of the top trainers in the business, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, he lost his first 10 races and no one really thought he’d amount to much. Fitzsimmons began to neglect him, and turned his attention to more promising colts.

But Seabiscuit eventually found a new owner. He also found a new trainer, who had recently served a suspension as a scapegoat in a doping case; and a new jockey, who had a drinking problem and happened to be blind in one eye. Trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard saw potential in the colt, and worked to awaken his competitive spirit. The horse’s stubbornness began to work in his favor, and soon he was winning. He would draw even with his competitors and stare them down out of the corner of his eye until they gave in, almost defeating them through sheer force of will. He became so competitive and so fierce that some of his stablemates refused to run against him in workouts. Track handicappers, in an attempt to make races more equitable, loaded him down with lead weights, but still he won. In 1937, as a four-year-old, he won 11 of 15 races and was the top money earner of the year. But he lost the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year to another stallion, who just happened to be his uncle.

That other horse was War Admiral, son of the great Man o’ War, who was Seabiscuit’s grandfather. War Admiral was everything Seabiscuit was not. Tall, gleaming black, and handsome, he had won the Triple Crown. A match race was set between the five-year-old Seabiscuit and the four-year-old War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. Forty thousand people packed the stands, and 40 million listened in on the radio. At one-to-four odds, War Admiral was the overwhelming favorite. Seabiscuit broke fast from the gate, pulling away quickly, but War Admiral gained on him and the two traded the lead for a while. Seabiscuit’s usual jockey, Red Pollard, was sidelined with a bad racing injury, but he’d told his replacement what to do: Ease up on the horse and let him get a good look at his opponent. Seabiscuit looked War Admiral in the eye and pulled away with a burst of speed, winning by four lengths. The little brown horse’s tale inspired two movies and several books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001). In 1940, The Saturday Evening Post called him “the Horatio Alger hero of the turf, the horse that came up from nothing on his own courage and will to win.”

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Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Other people imagine that if they exercise regularly and eat more fiber, they’ll live to be 98. I don’t. I believe that an exemplary healthful lifestyle makes it more likely I’ll be struck by a marble plinth falling off a building as I walk to the health club. I’m not even sure what a plinth is but it’s likely that one will kill me.

My grandma used to sing me to sleep with a song about two little children lost in a blizzard — “they sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried, and the poor little things, they lay down and died” — which is nothing Mister Rogers ever sang, but Grandma saw no reason to hide harsh reality from us. She did not tell us to look the other way when she chopped the head off a chicken. Death was a part of our lives. How many children today have observed a beloved relative swing an axe and decapitate a bird? Not many.

My fellow Democrats have been assuming for two years that our corrupt King would be brought to his knees by a keen investigator — and they are now sadly disappointed and wandering in confusion. Everyone knows he is corrupt — he himself boasted about it — he grew up admiring men who shrewdly worked the system to their own benefit, cutting corners left and right, stiffing the little guys, paying off the big honkers. Public service was never his thing, not then, not now.

Democrats are horrified by the King, of course, as most people are. He is compulsively cruel, resolute in his ignorance, proudly illiterate, and on the one occasion he was seen in church, he did not bother to recite the Nicene Creed, unlike the four ex-presidents in the church with him. He doesn’t believe in a Holy Trinity but rather a Fearsome Foursome, Himself included.

So Democrats have launched a couple dozen campaigns against him. Every Democrat with better than 5 percent name recognition is out on the trail speaking to crowds of librarians, yoga instructors, poets, birdwatchers, and organic farmers and talking about climate change, health care, and the need for civility in public life. Next spring, Democrats will nominate a beautiful person in a white robe and sandals who holds out his or her arms and birds come and perch on them.

We assume that this wonderful person will win. That is what should happen, just as we ought to have daffodils blooming in April. As a Minnesotan, I see danger in the act of leaping to logical assumptions.

I awake sometimes in the middle of the night, seeing the headline KING COASTS TO 2ND TERM. Political scientists are astonished — and historians. But bikers, Baptists, and lovers of horror novels are not. The King is a living parable, a bad dream become real. We are not an enlightened people. It is 1856 all over again, except now with social media. Nobody wants to hear this. When I say these things to my fellow Democrats, they excuse themselves and go to the kitchen and brew a pot of chamomile tea with touches of rosemary and warm up a plate of artisanal corn muffins.

They have contempt for the King, his bad grammar, his cruel stare, his love of the garish, his pettiness, his devotion to his hair, and their contempt will lead them to nominate a holy progressive who will have his or her lunch eaten. This is a Minnesotan’s view. I am looking out the window at snowy fields as I write.

Having said that, I am going for a walk. I’ll stick close to the curb, to avoid any falling plinths. Have a good day.

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

I don’t come from a huggy family. My wife does. I don’t. In my family, a pat on the back is considered sufficient, but when my wife walks into a room full of Keillors, she goes from one to another, throwing her arms out and clutching them to her, and they have to stand there and accept it or else look like soreheads.

People like us — white, Anglo, Midwestern, formal, reluctant to make eye contact, uptight, stiff, boring — are ridiculed, by comedians of color and also colorless comedians, and we have learned not to object. “Where’s your sense of humor?” people would say, so we laugh at the stereotype even though we don’t find it funny.

I don’t go around smiling. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy; it’s simply the culture I was born in. The photographs of my ancestors that we kept on the piano showed solemn bearded men and severe women and their gloomy children, no incisors visible whatsoever. My dad and uncles didn’t smile a lot. They associated smileyness with salesmen trying to charm you into buying a ten-year-old Dodge with a loose clutch and rust around the bumpers. I went off to college and, in order to be hip, read existential writers about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, while chain-smoking Luckies and drinking espresso, which tends to solemnize a person as well.

On account of my seriousness, people are always asking, “What’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I call this demeanorism, judging people by their facial expression. Inside, I’m pretty lighthearted but on the outside, I look as if I’ve been struck by a baseball bat and am trying to remember my name.

The squeeze that I experienced was ten years ago and I’m not saying it was traumatic but I do wish she would take ownership of it and express some regret at having ignored my feelings, and then I have a sudden sensation in my rear end, a suspicious flatness, and I reach back and there is no wallet there, and suddenly I’m up and running from room to room, checking pockets, looking under tables, calling up cafes I’ve patronized the past couple days.

This is the bright red wallet my wife bought me after I left a black wallet on the seat of a taxicab late one night and it occurs to me that this wallet loss, coming a month after the previous, may be what convinces her I need help. Tomorrow there’ll be a power-of-attorney form to sign and consultation with a series of people in white uniforms who take notes as I’m put through a battery of tests involving matching shapes on little wooden cubes, and my wife, who loves me dearly, will break the news gently. There is a care center that specializes in elderly men with cognitive issues. It’s called Sunnyvale and it has a triple-A rating from the AARP and there is shuffleboard and checkers and color TV in every room and a sing-along on Saturday nights where the elderly gather to sing Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones hits.

For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe Michelle Obama reached around me to lift my wallet out of my back pocket.

And then I find it. It’s in the freezer. I set it down when I was getting out the frozen waffles this morning.

Ignore whatever I was saying before. I am okay. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. This is all a man needs. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. It’s spring. We’re going to be okay.

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

This church is in Manhattan where temptations to pleasure line Amsterdam Avenue and I walk to church while smelling fresh croissants, rich dark coffee from Kenya, Japanese noodles, chrysanthemums, soft cheeses, and much more, most of which God is involved in producing. The hymn seemed to suggest that I sacrifice fresh pumpernickel and espresso for Wonder Bread and Sanka.

In the hymn, we also came out against “heedless word and deed” and, because it rhymes, “ambitions to succeed,” which I’m not giving up either. You give up heedlessness and pretty soon you’d never dare eat a peach or wade in a brook or ask a woman to dance. And ambition is what gets me moving in the morning. I’m 76 and writing a musical called “Dusty & Lefty” and already I’m envisioning the review in the Times — “gorgeous … lyrical … makes ‘Hamilton’ seem like a tabletop appliance that blends milkshakes.”

It’s a cruel hymn. It says, “Teach us to know our faults, O God,” which is fine, but then, for the rhyme, it says, “Train us with thy rod.” This is rhyme without reason. Why not “May we with thy truth be shod” or “Let us bloom as goldenrod”? The Psalmist said, “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me” but “Train us with thy rod” has definite sadomasochistic overtones in Manhattan.

The pleasures that I love include walking, riding the train, and sitting at a window seat as the airliner comes in low over the Sound and catches the deck of the carrier LaGuardia and hits the brakes. They include what I’m doing right now, tapping away on a laptop, not sure where this is going. They include monogamy, a good idea that puts the parents in the background. We are the stagehands. We have each other and are not searching for self-fulfillment. That’s for the children. I used to seek self-fulfillment in spirituous beverages and stopped fifteen years ago. It’s a pleasure to not do it anymore.

I enjoy the proximity of my wife who as I write is sitting fifteen feet away and, moments ago, when I stood on the sofa to pull the shade so the sun wouldn’t blind me, jumped up from her Sunday crossword and held me by the hips lest I fall. I’ve always wanted her to do that and never knew how to ask. It felt like we were about to dance the tango. The sun poured in like a spotlight at the Roxy and I waited for the drum roll. I hope she will grab me again and next time hold a red gardenia between her teeth and another behind her ear. I like a grabby woman. She womansplained that she was afraid I’d fall and crack my skull. It was very sweet.

Life is good. I can order a cab and then watch its progress on a map on my phone so I don’t need to stand at the curb, I can go into the drugstore and stroll amidst acres of emollients and salves and lubricants. Back in the day we only had Jergens which softened the skin but today’s products hydrate, rejuvenate, regenerate, perhaps emancipate and elucidate, they contain aloe and collagens and vitamin E from Egypt and seaweed oil and fluorides that promote fluency and efflorescence. I could buy socks with odor-eating chemicals. Paste that makes my teeth brilliant.

Instead, I buy a carton of dandelion tea. We used to consider dandelions an enemy and now it’s a comfort. Progress is made. I can text a photograph of us to our daughter at her school and she texts back, “Awwww. Sweet.” Pharmaceuticals that didn’t exist for my uncles enabled me to reach 76, an age when if I jump up on the couch, the woman I love will grab me. I can give up crankiness for Lent and bad grammar — I will not ask her to lay beside me but to LIE beside me — but I won’t give up heedless pleasure. It has been my ambition for many years.

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April 27, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Woodstock, MN

Woodstock, NY

April 27, 2019

Garrison Keillor celebrates National Poetry Month with poems & song at a benefit for Performing Arts of Woodstock.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for April 21, 2019

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Writing

Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Read More

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

Read More

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

Read More

So that’s over, and what’s next?

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It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

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I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

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Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

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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.

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