The Writer’s Almanac for November 7, 2018

What if you slept…

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

 

“What if you slept…” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Public Domain.  (buy now)


It’s the birthday of singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada (1943). As a kid, she got a bad case of polio, and in the hospital the staff told her she couldn’t go home for Christmas, and she was so upset that she started singing Christmas carols at the top of her lungs, and she decided that she was a good performer. She recovered from the polio and taught herself to play the guitar by using a Pete Seeger instruction book.

She was going to be an artist, but after a year of college she changed her mind and headed to Toronto to try and make it as a singer, and it was on the train to Toronto that she wrote her first song. She had a slow start, performing in coffeehouses and writing songs for other people. But finally she made it as a singer, with songs like “Both Sides Now,” “Carey,” “Chelsea Morning,” “Woodstock,” and “Circle Game.”

She said: “We Canadians are a bit more nosegay, more Old-Fashioned Bouquet than Americans. We’re poets because we’re such reminiscent kind of people. […] My poetry is urbanized and Americanized, but my music is influenced by the prairies. When I was a kid, my mother used to take me out to the fields to teach me birdcalls. There was a lot of space behind individual sounds. People in the city are so accustomed to hearing a jumble of different sounds that when they come to making music, they fill it up with all sorts of different things.”


It’s the birthday of critic and writer Stephen Greenblatt, (books by this author) born in Boston (1943). As a kid, he read so much that his mom would tell him to get his nose out of a book and go watch some TV. But he just kept reading, and went on to write popular books of literary criticism. One of his most successful books is Will in the World (2004), a biography of William Shakespeare, which was a New York Times best-seller.

He said, “The first and perhaps the most important requirement for a successful writing performance — and writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig — is to understand the nature of the occasion.”


It’s the birthday of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, born in the Ukraine (1879). He was one of the leaders of the ruthless civil war that overthrew the Russian Czar and established the communist state. Later, he opposed the dictator Josef Stalin and became an enemy of the Soviet government. In his later years, he wrote many books about Russian history and Marxist ideas. In 1924 he wrote Literature and Revolution, a book that discusses art’s relationship to politics. Trotsky said, “Learning carries within itself certain dangers, because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies.”


It was on this day in 1917 that the Russian Revolution took place, led by Vladimir Lenin, who had been in exile in Switzerland, plotting to overthrow the Russian government. In April 1917, he crossed the border back into Russia for the first time in ten years and went underground. He had to sneak through the streets in a disguise to attend a meeting of the Bolsheviks in late October, but he persuaded a majority of his party to launch an armed takeover of the country. The coup met almost no resistance on this day in 1917, and the next day, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of the new Soviet Government. Overnight, he had gone from a fugitive in hiding to the leader of the largest country in the world.


It’s the birthday of French writer Albert Camus, born in Mondovi (now Dréan), Algeria in 1913. His father died in World War I when Camus was an infant, and his mother moved her two sons to a working-class neighborhood of Algiers. There, the Camus boys grew up in poverty in a cramped apartment, with no bathroom, heat, or plumbing. His mother was illiterate, partially deaf, and had trouble speaking; she worked in a factory and as a housecleaner to support her children. Camus was a smart boy, and some of his teachers helped him get a scholarship to a good school. In high school, he was an excellent athlete as well as student, but he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 17, a disease he struggled with for the rest of his life.

Despite the poverty and the tuberculosis and everything else working against him, Camus became a prominent writer and thinker. His novels include L’étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1947, The Plague), and La Chute (1956, The Fall). In December of 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In his speech, he said: “I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the center of a glaring light?” He was 44 years old.

About two years later, on January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash. He had used some of the money from his Nobel Prize to buy a house in the village of Lourmarin, in Provence. The countryside of Provence, with its view of the mountains, reminded Camus of Algeria. He had been holed up in Lourmarin since mid-November, working on various projects, including his latest novel. He wrote to his lover Catherine Sellers: “The solitude here is devastating, because in wintertime the empty village is closed, and the countryside bare, and except for lunch, I don’t see anyone all day. These are good conditions for work, and in fact I am working, but dull and continuous anguish is still there. I look at the fine landscape or the blank page, and I am discouraged about the road that must still be traveled.”

As the weeks went by and he continued to write, work became easier. Camus’ wife, Francine, and their twin daughters, Catherine and Jean, came to Lourmarin for Christmas, as did several friends. They were all relieved to find Camus in good spirits, feeling positive about his writing. On December 28th, 1959, one week before he died, Camus sent a letter to his friend and mentor, the writer Jean Grenier. He wrote: “Since November 15 I have retreated here to work, and in fact I have worked. For me, working conditions have always been those of the monastic life: solitude and frugality. Except for frugality, they are contrary to my nature, so much so that work is violence I do to myself. But this is necessary. I will be back in Paris at the beginning of January and then will leave again, and I really think that this commuting is the most efficient way to reconcile my virtues and vices, which ultimately is the definition of knowing how to live. This country, in any case, does not cease to be beautiful and rewarding for me, and I have found peace here.”

Camus had purchased a train ticket to Paris, planning to accompany his wife and daughters there after Christmas. But his good friend Michel Gallimard, the nephew of his publisher, offered to give him a ride back to Paris in his swanky Facel Vega, an expensive sports car that was owned by the likes of Ava Gardner, Tony Curtis, and King Hassan II of Morocco. Camus took Gallimard up on the offer, and they set out on January 3, with Gallimard’s wife and daughter. The next day, the car swerved off the road and hit a tree. Camus was killed instantly, and Michel Gallimard died a few days later; his wife and daughter survived. No one is sure what caused the car to go out of control — there is a new theory that the KGB wanted Camus dead and tampered with the tires — but it was probably just too sporty of a car to be traveling on an icy road that wasn’t very well maintained.

After the crash, police found the contents of Camus’s briefcase scattered all over. They found photos, a copy of Othello and a book by Nietzsche, a diary, and the manuscript of his unfinished novelThe manuscript was very rough, written messily and oftentimes without punctuation, but Camus’s wife typed it up, and many years later his daughter Catherine edited and finalized it. Le Premier Homme (The First Man) was finally published in 1995.


Today is the birthday of the French-Polish scientist who changed our understanding of physics, Marie Curie, born Marja Sklodowska into a family of teachers in Warsaw (1867). Both her parents were nationalists at a time when Poland was under Russian rule, and her father was repeatedly fired and demoted from teaching positions over his loyalties. To help with the growing financial strain, the family took in boarders, and when Marie was just eight, her older sister caught typhus and died. Just three years later, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father continued raising the kids himself, reading the classics and teaching what science he could to them at night, and they each excelled in school.

Marie and her sister were hungry for higher learning, but women were banned from the university, so for a time, they attended a revolutionary illegal night school called “The Floating University,” which constantly switched locations to avoid the Russian authorities. Determined to get a proper education, the two sisters made a pact to take turns funding each other’s schooling. Marie took work for three years as a governess on a sugar beet plantation, while she funded Bronya to study medicine in Paris. She filled the lonely hours away from home trying to teach herself math and science whenever possible. When she finally got her own chance to study at the Sorbonne in France, Marie traveled fourth class with her own chair on the train, and found an apartment in the Latin Quarter. She kept warm by wearing every piece of clothing she owned and would get so engrossed in study that she often fainted for lack of food. Within a few years, she graduated top of her class in physics and math.

Looking for lab space, Marie was put in touch with a pioneering researcher named Pierre Curie. Their professional relationship soon turned romantic, and the two were married in July 1895 in a simple ceremony, bicycling across France for their honeymoon. Always economical, Marie said: “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark, so that I can put it on afterwards and go to the laboratory.” The couple settled in France, but Marie still held strong feelings for Poland. When she got her first significant paycheck for her research, she used it to repay a scholarship she had received so that another Polish girl might have the chance to study as she had.

Marie was intrigued by the recent discovery of X-rays by a German physicist. While X-rays were getting all the attention of the scientific community, a peripheral discovery of uranium rays wasn’t. Marie made this the focus of her research. Her discoveries would soon shake up the very foundation of scientific understanding by revealing that atoms, which had been believed to be indivisible, could radiate even smaller particles, electrifying the air around them. Teaming up with her husband, Marie also successfully isolated the elements polonium (which she named for her native Poland) and radium. She coined the term “radioactivity” to describe the property of emitting rays and believed it held great promise in the treatment of cancer. During World War I, she established hundreds of X-ray stations throughout France, and created mobile units for ambulances to use on the front, sometimes driving them herself.

Though known for her humility, she became the most celebrated woman scientist of the 20th century. Albert Einstein said of her, “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.” She died of pernicious anemia in 1934, probably due to high levels of radioactive exposure she had received. More than a hundred years after her lab work, her journals are still too radioactive to handle, and are kept in a lead vault.

Marie Curie said: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is […] also a child placed before natural phenomena that impress him like a fairy tale. […] We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific discovery can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, [or] gearings …”

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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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