The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

House by Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told—
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.

The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from—
the five Critchlows—

and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.

I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.

So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,

he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman

or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and to call down a son to earth
to take over the cows and the farm

when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and prayer—
the sun breaking over the same horizon
into these same windows,

lighting the same bed-space where I lie
having nothing to farm, and no son,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.


It’s the birthday of novelist François Mauriac (books by this author), born in Bordeaux, France (1885). During his lifetime, he was considered one of France’s greatest novelists, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1952. But he was staunchly Catholic in an era when Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were bringing existential philosophy to French culture — he was too conservative for progressives, but not Catholic enough for the Catholic establishment. Mauriac also had a tendency to get in public fights with other well-known writers.

His first major public dispute was with Albert Camus in the aftermath of World War II. Camus wrote for Combat, a newspaper of the French Resistance, and he was of the firm opinion that justice was the most important priority for France, and that every Nazi collaborator should be ferreted out and given a harsh punishment. Although Mauriac was also a member of the Resistance, he wrote for a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, and in his column he took issue with Camus, arguing that France should focus on unity, not on punishing collaborators. A few months after their public attacks on each other, a French writer named Robert Brasillach was sentenced to death for his role as a collaborator, although his collaboration had been theoretical — he supported Nazi Germany and was anti-Semitic, but he hadn’t actually done anything beyond publicize his views. Mauriac went to Brasillach’s defense — he totally disagreed with Brasillach’s views, but he didn’t think he should actually be executed for them. Mauriac organized a petition to ask Charles de Gaulle to pardon Brasillach, and he got a lot of big names on his list, including Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Colette. At the last minute, Camus signed it as well, but it didn’t do any good, and Brasillach was executed. Camus, for his part, had a total change of heart and decided that there was never an excuse to justify execution. Several years later, he gave a speech and said, “I have come to recognize for myself and now publicly that regarding the fundamental issue, and on the specific point of our dispute, Mr. François Mauriac was right and I was in the wrong.”

In 1949, after Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, Mauriac lashed out against it, suggesting that it be investigated as pornography. It probably didn’t help that 10 years earlier, Beauvoir’s longtime lover Jean-Paul Sartre had written an essay called “François Mauriac and Freedom,” in which he concluded: “Novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac.”

Mauriac and best-selling novelist Roger Peyrefitte also engaged in a very public dispute. It started when Mauriac wrote a letter about the recently deceased gay writer Jean Cocteau, whom he called a “tragic personality” because he was missing out on “that reassuring universe where a woman lays her hand on our forehead with the same gesture as our mother, and where children gather around us till the end.” Peyrefitte, who was open about his own gay relationships, was annoyed by Mauriac’s comments. Then Mauriac published another letter saying he was disgusted by a film being made out of one of Peyrefitte’s novels, about homoerotic feelings between 12-year-old boys — Mauriac said that it was “a cauldron from which their souls will not emerge unscathed.” That set Peyrefitte over the edge, and he published a vicious letter about Mauriac — not only did he call him homophobic, but he also suggested that Mauriac was a closeted gay man who had been in love with Jean Cocteau. The fight became the celebrity gossip of France, dividing prominent figures as they sided with one or the other.

François Mauriac continued publishing novels until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. He said: “Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna.”

And, “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.”


It’s the birthday of the man who founded the YMCA, Sir George Williams, born on a farm in Somerset, England, on this day in 1821. Growing up, he said he was “a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow.” He went off to London and got a job in a draper’s shop, where he toiled away in sweatshop-like working conditions along with a bunch of other young men. He became a devoted Christian. He wanted his fellow laborers to have a place to congregate outside of work — a place where they wouldn’t be led into the temptation of sin, a place where they could go to develop a “healthy spirit, mind, and body,” he said. And so he created the Young Men’s Christian Association in London in June 1844, when he was just 22 years old. In many places, it’s now called “the Y,” and today it has 45 million members around the world.


It’s the birthday of the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, born in New York City (1884) who said, “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” She began a secret courtship with her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During World War I, she went off to Europe and visited wounded and shell-shocked soldiers in hospitals there. Later, during her husband’s presidency, she campaigned hard on civil rights issues — not a universally popular thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

After FDR died in 1945, she moved from the White House to Hyde Park, New York, and taught International Relations at Brandeis University. As anti-communist witch-hunting began to sweep the U.S., she stuck up for freedom of association in a way that few Americans were brave or bold enough to do. She chided Hollywood producers for being so “chicken-hearted about speaking up for the freedom of their industry.” She said that the “American public is capable of doing its own censoring” and that “the judge who decides whether what [the film industry] does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies.”

She said that the Un-American Activities Committee was creating the atmosphere of a police state in America, “where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion.”

In 1947, a couple years before the McCarthy Era had reached full swing, she announced, “The Un-American Activities Committee seems to me to be better for a police state than for the USA.”

She once said, “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.”

And, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”


It was on this day in 1962 that Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, with the goal of bringing the church up to date with the modern world. More than 3,000 delegates attended, including many of the Catholic bishops from around the world, theologians, and other church officials.

As a result of Vatican II, Catholics were allowed to pray with Protestants and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches; priests were encouraged to perform mass facing the congregation, rather than facing the altar; and priests were allowed to perform mass in languages other than Latin, so that parishioners could finally understand what was being said throughout the service.


The film To Have and Have Not premiered on this day in 1944. It was based on the novel To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, which was a hard novel for Hemingway to write, and took him about four years. He had been accused of being politically apathetic, so in this novel he tried to engage with the politics of Cuba and Key West, but the result was generally panned by critics. Philip Rahv of the Partisan Review summed it up: “In transcending his political indifference, he has not, however, at the same time transcended his political ignorance.” Hemingway published the novel in 1937, and in 1939, he sold the film, radio and television rights for $10,000.

The film To Have and Have Not opened on this day at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan for an exclusive showing, and it grossed $46,200 in its first week at that one theater, and went on to be a blockbuster. It was billed as “Ernest Hemingway’s (books by this authorTo Have and Have Not,” but in reality it was based very loosely on the novel. A man named Jules Furthman wrote the screenplay, but the government objected to it because it portrayed Cuba in an unflattering way, and in those days—the Batista regime—the U.S. and Cuba were allies. So Warner Brothers told the film’s director that the film would have to be cancelled, even though production had already started.

So the director took it to his friend William Faulkner, (books by this author) a screenwriter on the Warner Brothers payroll. Faulkner took the script and rewrote it, changing the setting to Martinique, imagining a new political conflict, combining characters, dropping others, and rewriting dialogue. But since it had attracted the government’s notice, all the changes to the script had to be sent to the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information. Since they were on a tight recording schedule, Faulkner was writing each scene about three days before it was shot, and he helped make changes even during filming.

To Have and Have Not is celebrated as a collaboration between two Nobel Prize winners, although Hemingway and Faulkner did not actually interact during the process of making the film, and apparently Faulkner never mentioned Hemingway at all. And neither one of them wrote the most famous line in the film: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” It was improvised on the spot by the director as a screen test for Lauren Bacall, and she did so well that Faulkner wrote it into the screenplay.

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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.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

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?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

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December 16, 2018

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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.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Edna O’Brien (1930), one of a select number of Irish artists who have been bestowed the honor of Saoi.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of Shirley Jackson (1916), author of morbid short story “The Lottery” and novel-turned-Netflix-hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

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It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake, described by victims as a very nice pirate, set out to sail around the world.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

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Today is the birthday of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863) who said, “My sufferings…are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

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It’s the birthday of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911), who delivered his acceptance speech in Arabic when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

This episode’s got five concertinas, four melodeons, three button boxes, two tin whistles, and a partridge in a pear tree. Guests include Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Boys of the Lough (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

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It’s the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson (1830), who grew up very social and only gradually became reclusive.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

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Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

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It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

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“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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Writing

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.

Read More

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?).

Read More

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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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.

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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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