The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

The Ballad of John Henry. Old American folk song. Public domain.

John Henry was a little baby
Sitting on his mammy’s knee.
Said, the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Road
Gonna be the death of me.

John Henry had a little woman
And her name was Polly Ann.
John Henry took sick
And he had to go to the bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.

Captain says to John Henry,
Gonna bring me a steam drill ’round
Gonna take that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down.

John Henry told his captain,
Said, a man ain’t nothing but a man.
And before I let that steam drill beat me down,
I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.

Sun was hot and burning,
Weren’t no breeze at all.
Sweat ran down like water down a hill
That day John let his hammer fall.

John Henry said to his shaker,
Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ twelve pounds from my hips on down
Just listen to the cold steel ring.
Lord, Lord, just listen to the cold steel ring.


It was on this day in 1764 that Edward Gibbon (books by this author) thought up the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His six-volume work, published between the years 1776 and 1788, covered more than a thousand years of Roman history, from 180 A.D. to the fall of Constantinople.

Gibbon wrote in his autobiography: “It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind. After Rome has kindled and satisfied the enthusiasm of the Classic pilgrim, his curiosity for all meaner objects insensibly subsides.”

Gibbon became known as “the first modern historian.” He tried to write objectively, and in departure from his predecessors, he relied heavily on primary source documents rather than on secondary sources such as official Church histories. He made extensive — and eccentric — use of footnotes.


It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (books by this author), born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. Some of his books are long lists of aphorisms, while others are written almost like novels or poetry. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of superman, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him.

He’s perhaps best known for claiming that “God is dead,” but most people forget that he actually said, “God is dead … and we have killed him!” He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the 20th century.

He said: “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 


It’s the birthday of the Roman poet Virgil (books by this author), born near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.E.). Not much is known about his early life, and although some biographers made him out to be a country bumpkin, he probably came from a well-off family who sent him off to get a good education. He may have been socially awkward and sickly, but no one knows for sure. He left behind some of the most beloved poems written in Latin: his pastoral poems, the Eclogues; his poems about farming, the Georgics; and the poem he wanted destroyed, The Aeneid. Emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write The Aeneid, and he worked on it for 11 years, but it still wasn’t finished at the time of his death. He left behind a request that the unfinished poem be burned, but Augustus forbade this from happening. The emperor’s orders were followed, and the Aeneid became a classic, and Virgil’s best-known work.

He said, “Every man makes a god of his own desire.”


It’s the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881). He’s best known for his novels and short stories about the butler Jeeves. He said: “I was writing a story, ‘The Artistic Career of Corky,’ about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That’s how a character grows.” He wrote more than 100 books, including Summer Lightning (1929), Thank You Jeeves (1934), Young Men in Spats (1936), The Code of the Woosters (1938), and Joy in the Morning (1946).

He said: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, ‘This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,’ you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.”

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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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