The Writer’s Almanac for November 5, 2018

I would not paint­­–a picture…

by Emily Dickinson

I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It’s finer—own the Ear—
Enamored—impotent—content—
The License to revere.
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

 

“I would not paint—a picture…” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of writer and activist Vandana Shiva (books by this author), born in Dehradun, India (1952). As a kid, she came home from boarding school and told her parents that she needed a nylon dress, because all the rich girls she went to school with had them. Her mother said: “If that is what you want, of course you shall have it. But remember, your nylon frock will help a rich man buy a bigger car. And the cotton that you wear will buy a poor family at least one meal.” She gave up on the idea of nylon.

Growing up, her hero was Albert Einstein, even though she went to school at a convent that didn’t even teach science or math. She taught herself, and ended up at a Canadian university, where she got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics — her dissertation topic was “Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory.” She was all set to stay in Canada and become an academic. But she said: “There is a question in my mind. We have the third-biggest scientific community in the world. We are among the poorest of countries. Science and technology is supposed to create growth, remove poverty. Where is the gap? Why is science and technology not removing poverty?” So she decided to take three years off, go back to India and learn more about the society and culture that produced her, and then come back to teach.

As she started learning about some of the technology in India, she saw how much it was connected to power structures and resources. She moved more and more into environmental work. She was horrified by the news of Indian farmers committing suicide after their crops failed, and she started advocating for saving seeds, promoting diversity of crops and local food movements. She set up a big organic farm and training center in the foothills of the Himalayas, where she grew up.

She said, “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”

She is the author of many books including The Violence of the Green Revolution (1992), Monocultures of the Mind (1993), Water Wars (2002), Earth Democracy (2005), Soil Not Oil (2008), and Making Peace with the Earth (2013).


It’s Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, in the United Kingdom. It commemorates the failure of conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. At issue was the anger of Roman Catholics toward King James I, who refused to extend religious tolerance to the Catholics. The conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, planned to target Parliament at its opening ceremony, thereby killing the king and queen and clearing the way for a new era of Catholicism in England. Someone tipped off the authorities, and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught red-handed stashing explosives in the cellar on the night before the planned attack. Fawkes was tortured, tried, convicted, and executed for treason, along with any other conspirators who weren’t killed when they resisted arrest.

The first observation of Guy Fawkes Day took place that same year, when bonfires were lit to celebrate the safety of the king, and has been going on ever since. It features fireworks, to represent the explosives, and bonfires, at which Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy. The Yeomen of the Guard also perform a ceremonial search of the Parliament buildings. Children carry the effigies around town for several days prior to the bonfire, asking passersby for “a penny for the Guy.” They use their collection to buy fireworks.

Ironically, Guy Fawkes was really just a peripheral figure to the conspiracy. Born a Protestant in 1570, he had converted to Catholicism when he was 23. Catesby and the other leaders of the plot recruited Fawkes because he was a military man, and they thought his experience would serve them well. He was nowhere near the mastermind that tradition has made him out to be.


It’s the birthday of Uzodinma Iweala (1982) (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C., to Nigerian parents. He wrote Beasts of No Nation (2005) while he was going to school at Harvard. Published the year after he graduated with an English literature degree, the novel hit bookstores the week of his 23rd birthday. It was his first novel, and it garnered glowing reviews from The New York TimesThe London TimesThe Washington PostRolling Stone, The New Yorker magazine, and many others. Iweala was selected as one of America’s 20 Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine.

Beasts of No Nation is about a boy from West Africa whose father, a village schoolteacher, is killed by guerilla fighters who come to town. The boy, Agu, is forced to become a child soldier with those guerilla fighters. He narrates the brutalities of war, and his gradual embrace and enthusiasm for violence, his experiences coming of age in such conditions, his faltering belief in God, his deferred dream of becoming a doctor. The book is written in the first person, in an English cadenced in the idiom of Iweala’s parents’ native Nigerian languages. At the beginning, the child narrates: “I am not wanting to fight. I am not liking to hear people scream or to be looking at blood. I am not liking any of these thing.”

He has also decried the West’s fascination with aid to Africa. In a 2007 Washington Post article called “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa,” he writes: “Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.”

In 2011, Iweala graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and he was also a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.  His most recent book is Speak No Evil, a novel about a Nigerian-American teenage boy  struggling to come out as gay.


Today is the birthday of the man who said: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal class, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” That’s the speaker and labor organizer Eugene Debs (books by this author), born to poor Alsatian immigrants in Terre Haute, Indiana (1855). At the age of 14, Debs left high school to work as a paint scraper on the railroad. He soon joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, became an influential member of the union, and went on to become editor of their national magazine. He first went to prison for support of the Pullman Strike of 1894. He emerged six months later a committed socialist, a charismatic speaker, and in 1900, ran for president on the Socialist ticket. He also co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) alongside Bill Haywood and Mother Jones.

A tall lanky man with piercing blue eyes, Debs was an animated speaker, often bending far over the podium to look into the faces of the crowd. He disliked the label of leader, saying: “Too long have the workers […] waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.”

In 1908, Debs campaigned for president on “The Red Special” locomotive, traveling to the farthest corners of the country. He lost yet again, but this time he received more than a million votes. Nine years later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a speech in which he said, “The rich start the wars, the poor fight them.” The Espionage Act had recently passed, making it a crime to publicly oppose the American involvement in World War I. Debs represented himself, called no witnesses, and his statement before the court is regarded as a masterpiece of American oratory.

He continued to speak out from an Atlanta penitentiary on labor issues, and ran yet another popular presidential campaign from behind bars. Now in his early 60s, he refused any special treatment in jail and won over his fellow inmates by constantly fighting on their behalf. When he was pardoned on Christmas Day in 1921, the warden opened every cell block and allowed more than 2,000 inmates to gather at the gates and bid farewell to Debs. As he turned the corner and began to walk the gauntlet of prisoners, Debs opened his arms to the men and began to weep as the crowd roared. Some 50,000 people greeted him upon his return to Terre Haute.

His book on the prison industry, Walls and Bars, was published after his death from heart failure in 1926.

Eugene Debs, who said, “When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other’s throats; when we’ve stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends.”


On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis (books by this author) to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Lewis thought it was a practical joke and began to imitate the man’s accent. But it was not a joke: Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He wasn’t sure he deserved it and told a friend at the time, “This is the end of me … I cannot live up to it.” He used his Nobel lecture to talk about all the other writers that might have been chosen: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, and Willa Cather; and he ended the lecture by mentioning the younger writers he considered the future of American literature, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, each of whom had just published their first few books. Lewis said, “Young Americans … are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them.”


It’s the birthday of writer Thomas Flanagan (books by this author), born in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1923. He did not become a novelist until after the age of 50. He’d been a professor of literature in New York and at Berkeley, and a scholar of Irish history. One day, waiting for his wife to pick him up, he had a flash of inspiration for a historical novel in which an Irish poet walked down a road. This became the first chapter of The Year of the French (1979), about Ireland’s failed attempt to revolt against the English in 1798. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Flanagan went on to write other well-received historical novels about Ireland, incorporating real-life figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and Wolfe Tone along with fictional characters.

He spent nearly every summer of his last 40 years in Ireland, and once said, “It is not the romantic, rather sentimental Ireland of many Irish-Americans that I love, but the actual Ireland, a complex, profound, historical society, woven of many strands, some bright and some dark.”

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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

The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

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

The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

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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