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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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

 I am an old man chained to a computer and I get less exercise than your average statue in the park, meanwhile I avoid vegetables in favor of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, I seldom wash my hands and often rub my eyes, my daily water intake is less than that of a small lizard, and yet I feel pretty darned good, knock on wood, whereas certain people I know who lead exemplary lives of daily workouts and hydration and veganism complain of insomnia, sharp stabbing pains, exhaustion, gassiness, and memory loss, so where is the justice, I ask you. How is it that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

The answer is: I have an excellent doctor. I searched high and low for one, eliminating those with WASPy names like Postlethwaite or Dimbleby-Pritchett and those with old names (Amos, Portia, Naomi, Elijah) who maybe don’t know about antibiotics. I scratched very young doctors (Sean, Amber, Jared, Emerald) who maybe don’t understand geriatrics. I eliminated doctors who, when I called to inquire about an appointment, I was put on hold and heard flute music. I nixed doctors who had tassels on their shoes or whose M.D. degrees came from schools in Tahiti or Tijuana. And by the time I found a doctor, medical science had taken great leaps forward in the treatment of sedentary dehydrated germ-ridden men like me, so here I am.

My advice to the young is: Don’t sweat exercise. Eat what you want to eat. Live your life. Follow your heart. And be sure to marry well. I did that a quarter-century ago and it took me a while to realize it but now I feel buoyant around her and without her I’m just going through the motions. With her, I’m Mr. Successful, and without her I’m an old guy with soup stains on his shirt.

Thoreau said to advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and you’ll be successful, but he could’ve been more specific. He himself was a failure, as an author and as a lecturer and at finding a date for Saturday night. When he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was talking about himself. His classic, “Walden,” would’ve been a better book if there’d been a woman living in the cabin with him, but he only had a hard narrow bed and was more interested in mushrooms than in being a fun guy. And he was a Red Sox fan.

Scientists have pointed out that fans of losing teams experience a 20 percent drop in testosterone. A cruel thing. Your warriors go down to defeat and you get up from the TV and your wife comes and puts her arms around you and you think, “Oh no, not this again.”

I’ve been a fan of the Twins (78-84), the Golden Gophers (3-6), the Democratic Party (1 out of 4, counting the Supreme Court), and country music (he gets fired, his wife leaves him, he gets drunk, she runs off with a successful orthopedic surgeon) so I’m running low on testosterone, but there is hope. The lessons last Sunday in church said so. The prophet Isaiah said, “You shall be a crown of beauty. … You shall be called My Delight,” which nobody ever said to me before. The psalm was about feasting, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus did his magic trick turning water into wine at the wedding. I was absolved of my transgressions and I prayed for my daughter and for the infant Ida Rose, one week old, and afterward people around me reached over and shook my hand. I pulled out a five to put in the collection plate and saw too late that it was a twenty and the usher had seen it, so I let it go. Fifteen bucks for a sense of hope? Cheap at the price. And now I look out and see snow falling.

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

I take pleasure in the fact that the plastic bags from the grocery store exactly fit our garbage pail and so the garbage goes out the door in the same bag in which the food arrived. I derive pleasure from this. It isn’t about economy or conserving our plastic resources, no, it’s about symmetry. In, out; same bag. I don’t shop at the big fancy megamarkets: bags are wrong size.

I have just discovered that the best way to retrieve the last of the blueberry jam from the bottom of the jar is to use a teaspoon, not a knife. With the time I’ve spent over the years fishing up specks of jam with the tip of a knife, I could’ve written a very bad novella: a teaspoon gets the job done.

I sat through a four-hour performance of “Aida” with the ridiculous Act II procession of triumphant Egyptians hauling wagonloads of defeated Ethiopians through a set the size of the grain silos of Omaha, trumpet fanfares, four horses (count them, 1 2 3 4) on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, ballet dancers, spear-carriers, priests, the Met chorus in their robes and sandals singing the march, which sounds noble in Italian but the English is so dumb:
We won the war so we wear
The lotus and the laurel:
They smell good and we don’t care
If you think the war was immoral.
(My translation.)

It only made me think of high school commencements I have seen, but with singing instead of speaking.

The great transcendent moment of the opera is at the end. Aida and Radamès locked in the tomb, facing death, sing their farewell to this earth, a delicate ethereal duet that stays with you all the way home on the subway. The Met could’ve shown a movie for Act II, a scene from “Ben Hur,” and saved a half-million bucks.

I am a man with a small mind. (Am I repeating myself?) The major event of this week, plus the opera, was a joke told to me over the phone by a millennial feminist in San Francisco, a friend (I think) but who knows? She told me a joke I’d never dare tell to any woman under sixty. It is so incorrect, alarms go off, red lights flash, a semaphore drops. Do not read the following paragraph, please. Skip it and go to the end.

A woman decides to kill herself and goes out on the Brooklyn Bridge to jump and a sailor grabs her and cries, “No! You have much to live for! Listen. I’m sailing to Italy tonight. I’ll stow you aboard and take care of you and in ten days you’ll be in Naples.” The woman has always wanted to see Italy, so she says yes. The sailor takes her to the boat that night and stows her in a tiny cabin below decks and for a week, as the ship sails, he brings her food every night and they make love. Then one night the captain finds her: “What are you doing here?” She explains. “A wonderful sailor saved my life and he’s taking me to Italy and — he’s screwing me.” The captain says: “He sure is. This is the Staten Island Ferry.”

I explained to the m.f. that this is about date rape, it’s about sexual treachery, about male oppression. And she said, “I thought it was funny. It made me laugh.”

This is bigger news than the government shutdown. An m.f. told a joke because she thought it was funny. The world turns. Aida may yet be rescued. Do not stick a fork into a toaster. Call me a romantic but I believe that someday the Staten Island Ferry may sail to Italy and I hope to be aboard with my wife when it does and we’ll be very happy in a small cabin below decks.

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Senator Romney said last week, “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation,” and that is a bunch of hooey and horse manure. America has not suddenly become a nation of sleazy con men and compulsive liars. If anything, the presidency in its current state offers a valuable moral object lesson on an hourly basis. Senator Romney is way off base, like saying “To a great degree, a U.S. senator wields great influence on hair style.” I don’t see it. Children are growing up during this administration who are learning a good lesson: if you don’t know history and you can’t do math, you’re in deep water and there’s no way to hide it.

Goodness is lavished on the world from all sides. Small generosities engender tremendous force against the darker powers. Great kindness pervades our lives. The man at the newsstand says “Good morning” and “How is your day so far?” and he is from somewhere in the Middle East and I am warmed by his blessing. The woman at the café pours a cup of coffee, light, and toasts my sesame bagel and slathers it with cream cheese with scallions. I ask her how her day is so far and she smiles enormously and says, “Excellent, sweetheart.”  I’m in Penn Station, with my daughter, waiting for the train to Schenectady, and a Schenectadian tells me to be sure to visit the Nott Memorial at Union College, which I take as a joke — what is a memorial that is not? “N-o-t-t,” he says. “The guy who built the thing.” Schenectady is a depressed old factory town but here is a man who loves it and I have a perfect bagel and coffee and we two are about to embark on the 8:15 train. It is a very good morning and it is shaped by good people and God Almighty, not by the president. He is as irrelevant as Delaware, El Dorado, the Elks Club or L.S.M.F.T.

I have no business in Schenectady: the trip is my gift to my daughter who just turned 21 and who loves train rides. We’ll go up on the Adirondack and back to New York on the Lake Shore Limited, which used to be the 20th Century Limited, which Cary Grant rode in North By Northwest. I will sit by the window, point out the Tappan Zee Bridge, Poughkeepsie, Albany, and she will study the people around us. I’m a loner, she’s the sociable one, scoping out the neighbors. Up around Yonkers, she leans against me, scootches down, lays her head on my shoulder. She says, “I love you.” She falls asleep.

When I say “life is good,” I’m not talking about serenity. I’m not a guy who feels complete within himself and at home in the universe. I am talking about the basic animal goodness of having a mate — my wife, who doesn’t care for trains, enjoying her day alone in the city — and having a daughter who loves me and nestles against me. I was a neglectful father, obsessed with work, on the road, and yet I got this beautiful daughter, jokey, loyal, good company, affectionate. I want to warn her against men, their cruelty and treachery. When they’re not vulgar, they’re clueless. They are brutes and savages, all of them, and you should avoid them whenever possible, especially the shy and sensitive ones, they’re the worst, and if you decide to have one of your own, find one who seems trainable. This may take years. If he doesn’t show progress, kick him down the stairs and start over. This is what needs to happen in Washington. What are we waiting for? Hurl the bozo out on the street and his robotic vice president with him. Nancy Pelosi for president. Next week would not be too soon. Next stop, Schenectady.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

It was on this day in 1977 that the miniseries “Roots” premiered on ABC. Restaurants and shops cleared out while it was showing, and bars showed it on their TVs in order to keep customers there.

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A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

This week, huddle close together for another stream of a classic winter episode! With special guests Chuck Mead, Becky Schlegel, Nellie McKay, and humorist Roy Blount Jr. (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

Today is the birthday of British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788), who was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by one of his many lovers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983, following years of activists’ petitions, conferences, and advocacy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

It’s the birthday of the late Susan Vreeland (1946), whose novels, such as “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” intersected with alternate histories of art.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

Today is the birthday of Edwidge Danticat (Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1969), author of “Krik? Krack!” and the upcoming short story collection “Everything Inside.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of Rubén Darío (1867), a great poet in the Spanish-speaking world who is barely known to English speakers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” premiered on this day in 1904. He had meant for it to be a comedy, and was annoyed that the director had presented it as a tragedy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

On this day in 1605, Book One of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was published. The novel remains the most-translated book in the world after the Bible.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 15, 2019

“If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr., born this day in Atlanta, 1929

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Writing

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Read More

Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

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A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

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Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

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One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

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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.

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