The Writer’s Almanac for November 3, 2018

Amoretti XXX: My Love is like to ice, and I to fire

by Edmund Spenser

My Love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told,
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice,
And ice, which is congeal’d with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
That it can alter all the course of kind.

“My Love Is Like to Ice” by Edmund Spenser. Public domain.


It’s the birthday of writer and humorist Joe Queenan, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1950). He grew up in an Irish-Catholic, working-class family, with an abusive and alcoholic father. He said, “Blue-collar people like me have zero tolerance level for the problems of celebrities.” So he became a journalist and has made a career out of mocking celebrities, as well as all of American culture. His first book was Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (1992), and he has written nine more books, including Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Selfish History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2001), True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans (2003), and most recently, a more serious memoir about his childhood, Closing Time (2009).

He said: “I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to be a nice person. Like all satirists, I basically hate nice people. I hate do-gooders. I loathe Ben and Jerry. I loathe all of those people. So did Molière. But, I thought, I’ve been doing this for all of these years, maybe I should try being nice for a change. Who wants to be evil and hated? So, I tried to be a good person for six months. One of the things I did was set up a website where I apologized to all of the people that I’ve been really mean to. Though I must say that I went out of my way to reaffirm my dislike of certain people. You would never apologize to Geraldo for anything. So, I set up that website and shortly after that, I decided that I didn’t want to be a nice person anymore.”


The last public execution at London’s Tyburn Gallows took place on this date in 1783. Tyburn was located near the western end of what is now Oxford Street, and the first execution took place there in 1196, long before the famous “Tyburn Tree” gallows was erected (near the current location of Marble Arch) in 1571. The Tyburn Tree was noteworthy in that it had a triangular shape, allowing several people to be executed at once; in 1649, 24 prisoners were hanged simultaneously. The gallows was in the middle of the roadway, and was hard to miss; in fact, it became a tourist attraction and people would journey from miles around to watch the public executions. The villagers of Tyburn erected stands and charged people admission.

The first victim of the Tyburn Tree was Dr. John Story, a Catholic who refused to acknowledge Elizabeth I as the queen and head of the Church of England. Elizabeth’s half sister and predecessor, Queen Mary — also a Catholic — had earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her relentless pursuit of Protestants during her brief reign: In five years, she burned almost 300 religious dissenters at the stake. John Story had been one of the chief prosecutors of heretics, and when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth succeeded Mary in 1558, he ran into some trouble for boasting about his exploits. He was briefly imprisoned but fled overseas; he was eventually captured, tried for high treason, and condemned to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering.

Eventually, urban sprawl overtook the village of Tyburn, and people began to make noises about having such a macabre landmark right outside their front doors, so the Tyburn Tree was taken down, and subsequent executions were carried out on a portable gallows. The site of public executions was moved to Newgate Prison, and the last person to be executed at the site of the Tyburn gallows was a highwayman, John Austin. Coming upon John Spicer, a laboring man who was traveling through Kent, Austin had accompanied him on his journey for some several days, sharing lodging and food with him and apparently befriending him. Austin then allegedly lured Spicer to the woods, where he and an associate robbed and mangled the laborer. At Austin’s trial, the judge said, “Under the mask of friendship you have robbed a poor innocent man, deluded by your treacherous designs, and your false friendship: it is further aggravated by the baseness and inhumanity of your deceit, which cannot entitle you to any instance of mercy, but requires that you may be made an example of immediate justice.”

Austin’s last words were reportedly, “Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul; let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed; keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me, Jesus look down with pity on me, Christ have mercy on my poor soul.”


A little dog named Laika was launched into space aboard Sputnik 2 on this date in 1957. The mission for Sputnik 2 was to determine if a living animal could survive being launched into orbit. Laika was a stray that had been picked up from the Moscow streets, a 13-pound mutt with perky ears, a curly tail, and uncertain ancestry. She probably had a little spitz or terrier in her family tree, maybe a Siberian husky or even a beagle here and there. She was three years old, a good-natured dog that came to have several nicknames: Lemon, Little Curly, and Little Bug. Her name, Laika, means “barker” and was a generic term applied to all spitz-type dogs. The American press called her “Muttnik.” The Soviet space program deliberately chose strays for their missions because it was felt that they had proven themselves to be hardy, having already survived deprivation, extremes in temperature, and stress.

Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth. She was harnessed inside a snug, padded cabin with some ability to move, but not much. The capsule was climate-controlled, and she had access to food and water, and there were electrodes monitoring her vital signs, but everyone knew the capsule was not designed to return to Earth in one piece. Knowing that Laika had little time to live, one of the scientists took her home to play with his children a few days before the launch.

For many years, reports of her death were inconsistent; one report said that she lived for six days, until her oxygen ran out. The Soviet government insisted she had been euthanized via a pre-planned poisoned food portion prior to that, to make her death more humane. In 1999, it was revealed that vital signs ceased to be transmitted about five to seven hours after the launch, possibly because the booster rocket failed to separate from the capsule, causing the thermal control system to malfunction and the cabin to become unbearably hot. It is theorized that a combination of heat and stress killed Laika.

In 1998, after the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists spoke of his regret for Laika. He said: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it … We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”


It’s the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn’t meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn’t amount to much. He said, “I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.”

He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure, but one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures he took in America was of the parade honoring Lindbergh’s flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.

He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, “If the thing is there, why, there it is.” He photographed storefronts and signs with marquee lights, blurred views from speeding trains, old office furniture, and common tools. He took pictures of people in the New York City subways with a camera hidden in his winter coat.

Evans especially loved photographing bedrooms: farmers’ bedrooms, bohemian bedrooms, middle-class bedrooms. He’d photograph what people had on their mantles, on their dressers, and in their dresser drawers. By the early 1930s, he was one of the most celebrated photographers in the United States. In 1933, he was given the first one-man photographic exhibition by the new Museum of Modern Art.

In the summer of 1936, he went down to Greensboro, Alabama, to photograph tenant farmers struggling through the Great Depression. He spent weeks there, with the journalist James Agee, photographing the Burroughs family, the Fieldses, and the Tingle family at work on their farms and in their ramshackle homes.

At first, he was uncomfortable with the idea of taking pictures of such desperate people, but James Agee persuaded him that their job was show how noble these people were despite their circumstances. When Evans and Agee said goodbye at the end of their work, the farmers wept. The photographs, with Agee’s text, were published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). They are among the most famous images of the Great Depression.

Walker Evans said, “Fine photography is literature, and it should be.”


It’s the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939), who for a time supported himself working on radio shows. He said, “I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write plays — I thought you could be a playwright and sulk.”

Then, one day, someone recognized his voice and asked him if he was that guy on the radio. He realized that if he didn’t keep writing plays, he’d be remembered as some radio personality. So he got back to work and produced Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together. It became his first big hit and was made into a movie.

He said, “I like deadlines. I need deadlines. I’m not a compulsive writer — I don’t write every day. I’ve learned not to go to the computer until I know what I want to write.”

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A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

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

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving! We are thankful for Marjane Satrapi, André Gide, George Eliot, and all the other writers born this day.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

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It’s the birthday of Voltaire (1694), who wrote, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

Live from the Town Hall Theater in New York, it’s The McCoury boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and everybody’s favorite former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

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On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which was only ten sentences long and which lasted about 2 minutes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

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It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hugely popular online television series.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

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It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne, and then reigned for 45 years.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which was one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people.

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The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Marianne Moore, who once said, “I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

Live from the State Theater with Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, The Brothers Frantzich, and The Royal Academy of Radio Acting: Tim Russell & Sue Scott.

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Writing

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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