The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 8, 2020


Blackberries for Amelia
by Richard Wilbur

Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year’s canes.

They have their flowers too, it being June,
And here or there in brambled dark-and-light
Are small, five-petaled blooms of chalky white,
As random-clustered and as loosely strewn

As the far stars, of which we now are told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which, some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.

I have no time for any change so great,
But I shall see the August weather spur
Berries to ripen where the flowers were—
Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait—

And there will come the moment to be quick
And save some from the birds, and I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.

 

“Blackberries for Amelia” by Richard Wilbur, from Collected Poems. © Harcourt, 2004. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the science fiction author Frank Herbert, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1920). He was a journalist and an early member of the environmentalist movement, but at some point he decided to give up on journalism and put his ideas about the environment into science fiction novels. His first big success was Dune (1965), about a desert planet where people only survive because they have learned to conserve and recycle every possible trace of moisture. Dune was one of the first science fiction novels to completely imagine an entirely different world, with different plants and animals, different social classes, and a whole set of elaborate religious beliefs. It became a cult novel on college campuses and went on to sell about 12 million copies. Herbert spent a lot of the money he made inventing solar and wind cooling systems for his home.


It’s the birthday of historian Walter Lord, (books by this author) born in Baltimore (1917). His most famous book was A Night to Remember (1955), about the sinking of the Titanic, a disaster that had fascinated him since he was a boy. He said: “I think small boys get interested in things the way they catch colds or get chicken pox. Nobody knows why or how they do it. … I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner, it is an ocean liner sinking.”

But actually, there was a pretty good reason that young Walter knew about the Titanic. His mother told him bedtime stories every night about the big ocean liners she had sailed on, including the Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. When Walter’s father proposed to his mother, she told him she needed to think about it, and so she got a ticket on the Olympic from New York to London. She decided that she would say yes, so as soon as she got to London she got another ticket, turned right around and went back to New York to accept. When Walter was nine years old, his mother took him on the Olympic for a transatlantic cruise, and he quizzed all the crew members about the exact details of the Titanic‘s disaster.

So he was well-prepared to write a book by the time he was in his 30s, working a respectable day job for an advertising agency. At night he did research, pored over documents about the Titanic, and interviewed more than 60 survivors. And then he tried to reconstruct a history of the disaster, a narrative that would be factual would also give readers a sense of the lives of the passengers, and tell the events of the disaster like a story. A Night to Remember became the ultimate resource for Titanic buffs. It was a best-seller when it came out in 1955, and again in 1999 after the success of the film Titanic.

Walter Lord said that one of his goals for A Night to Remember was “to get across the point that wealth, position, rank and the like have very little to do with whether a person is good or bad, quick or slow, brave or perhaps not so brave. We get all that somewhere else.”


It’s the birthday of young adult novelist R.L. [Robert Lawrence] Stine, (books by this author) born in Bexley, Ohio (1943). He quit his job as a social studies teacher to become a freelance writer, and at first he specialized in humorous books for kids. But his career really took off when he started writing scary stories for young adults. By the early 1990s, Stine’s books were selling about a million copies per month. To keep up with demand, he had to write 20 pages a day, finishing a book every two weeks. His Fear Street series was the first modern book series for children that sold equally well to both boys and girls. Some critics have said that his books aren’t good for children, but R.L. Stine said, “I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value.”


It was on this day in 1871 that two deadly fires broke out in the Midwest: the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo fire. Chicago was such a well-known city, and the myth that the fire was started by a cow made for such a good story, that the Chicago fire eclipsed the Peshtigo fire in national legend. But the Peshtigo fire was the deadliest fire in American history. At least 1,200 people died, maybe twice as many. And at least 1.2 million acres of forest were burned. Sixteen towns, including Peshtigo, were burned.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a prosperous logging town in the North Woods. It centered on the Peshtigo Company, which had a woodenware factory and a sawmill and employed about 800 loggers. It had a population of 1,700 — more than 2,000, if including the surrounding farmers. There were two churches, four hotels, several general stores, a few saloons, and a lot of houses. Every building burned to the ground except one house that had just been built — the wood was too green to burn.

October 8th was a Sunday, and plenty of people were praying for rain, because that part of the North Woods had been in a drought since May; some accounts say that only a half-inch of rain had fallen since June. A lot of what we know about the Peshtigo fire comes from the detailed account of one of its survivors, Father Peter Pernin, the parish priest for Peshtigo and the nearby town called Marinette. He reported that small intense brush fires had been breaking out for weeks. He attributed those fires to the fact that many farmers had been taking advantage of the dry weather to burn tracts of land to clear the forest, and that hunters and travelers were in the practice of lighting fires at night to keep away animals and then not bothering to extinguish them the next morning. Pernin wrote, “In this way the woods, particularly in the fall, are gleaming everywhere with fires lighted by man, and which, fed on every side by dry leaves and branches, spread more or less. If fanned by a brisk gale of wind they are liable to assume most formidable proportions.” Also, logging practices of the time made it easy for forest fires to take hold — the tops of trees were left behind, and when they dried out they made perfect kindling all through the forest. And on top of the farmers and loggers clearing land, railroad workers were doing the same, clearing land for tracks.

And sure enough, at about 8:30 p.m. on October 8th, the wind picked up and residents of Peshtigo saw fire on the horizon. It swept through the town, a fire described as a tornado or a hurricane because it was such a huge force, propelled by intense winds that came in on a cold front from the west. The entire town was gone by 10 p.m.

One grieving woman wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law: “There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village, it came on us very suddenly […] Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror, it rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come, Mary — my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace’s, and three of brother Walter’s, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy, one can hardly keep one’s senses together to write you anything.”

Father Pernin wrote: “The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house — all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel.”

To save themselves, everyone ran for the river. Many people died not by being burned, but from suffocation, or from heart attacks as they ran for water. More people died from the Peshtigo fire than from the two next-deadliest fires combined. Of the more than a thousand dead, at least 350 were dumped in a mass grave.

Peshtigo has a museum commemorating the fire, although there’s not that much to put in it because almost nothing in the town survived the fire. There is a perfectly preserved tabernacle that Father Pernin saved by putting it in the river. There is a can of blueberries that melted and then petrified. There are also a few dishes, a piece of wood from the only house that survived, and a Bible that was found buried underneath a parking lot, slightly charred and opened to the Book of Psalms.

 

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Back in the sixth grade some boys campaigned for a dog to be class president. We were just discovering our sense of irony and wanted to exercise it. And then in 2016, it actually happened and there he was on the inaugural platform, a big woofer who didn’t know the NSA from the NIH from the end of a broom handle, and the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens were all shaking hands with the goofus and he was counting the crowd and wondering why he wasn’t getting a bigger cut of souvenir sales.

Now, as he tools around his golf course while red states are inundated with COVID patients and his lawyers litter the courts with motions to coronate him, we need to figure out how to defend the country against the next tyrant who is likely to be more competent than he. The problem is us Democrats: half of the voting public is repelled by us and no wonder. We lack discipline and we have no sense of humor. At a time of real suffering and meanness, we listen respectfully to people who feel that their personal identity is a political issue. Height-challenged people, for example, who feel overlooked. We put them on a pedestal. This strikes most people as odd.

Face it. The American people don’t enjoy democracy. Italians do, the French mostly do, and Danes are devoted to it. They have ten political parties in the Danish parliament, plus some independent members who couldn’t find any of the ten to agree with. The idea of a two-party system is abhorrent to Danes; to them, an election is an exercise of individuality.

Americans want a Moses. Trump is more psychosis than Moses but the next one is likely to be worse unless we unite behind Kamala and cancel the 2024 Democratic primaries.

Did you see Kamala and Pence on the split screen? It was the Homecoming Queen/Valedictorian versus the Lunchroom Monitor. America prefers a charming intelligent woman to an angry dullard, hands down. Let Joe do the hard stuff that makes you unpopular, and meanwhile Kamala’s approval ratings soar into the seventies. There are people who know how to accomplish this.

In three years, Snoozin’ Cruz and Two-Cents Pence and Rotten Cotton will be raging in Iowa and New Hampshire, doing eye pokes and carrying on urination contests, and the Democratic Party will be quiet, all of our fools staying in their rooms, our socialists socializing among themselves, the police defunders zipping their lips, there will be Kamala on the ballot, no communists, just a goddess of goodness and light supported by 100% of Democrats. Discipline.

Americans tend to be loose and so we admire discipline and that’s the appeal of authoritarianism. We Democrats need to learn from this. The woofer got elected because he knew nothing and was proud of his ignorance and never once admitted it: that is discipline. You and I have apologized hundreds of times. He, never.

Life can be hard. Deer hunting season is here, which is also the mating season for deer, a nasty coincidence: you’re with a beautiful female with big brown eyes and you paw the ground and snort and wave your antlers and then you smell beer and see a fat man with a red cap pointing a stick at you and there is a burst of flame and she gallops away and he walks over and slits your throat. It’s tragic. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it. But we can defeat the next Trump by closing ranks behind Kamala now and stop the nit-picking. Shut up, fellow Democrats, and form straight lines.

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain --- and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Joe Biden is my same age so that naturally makes me wonder about him. Seventy-eight is the age when you feel a strong urge to lie down and turn off the phone and put your favorite Emmylou Harris album on the turntable. But Joe didn’t look sleepy, he came jogging out to the lectern Saturday night in Wilmington and he gave a very amiable old-guy speech about our great country and healing and working together, and he didn’t refer to his opponent as Humpty Trumpty. He didn’t mention him at all.

It was the sort of hopeful speech you’d hear at commencement and it wasn’t terribly long. And it was preceded by Kamala Harris who, as the talking heads told us several times, is the First Woman VP and the First Woman of Color VP, and the First Child of Immigrants VP, a whole string of Firsts, but what really struck me is that she is the First Vice President With A Personality since 2016. She was delighted. She flashed a big grin. She showed a lot of spirit and her speech sounded like it might’ve been written by her and not a committee of Baptist coroners.

Neither she nor Joe complained about the incumbent as a “total loser” nor did they refer to their victory as “a historic landslide” (it wasn’t). It felt like a decent way to begin a new decade. Their families came out on stage at the end and you felt that probably they wouldn’t play a major role in the new administration. I don’t know if Joe owns a hotel chain but if he does, I assume he’ll divest himself of it and not travel around at government expense and stay in the Biden Caravelle or the Biden Majestic or the Biden Monte Carlo. I imagine we’ll get to see his income tax returns.

My evangelical relatives are in grief, of course, and I am sorry about that. They believe the 2016 election was an Act of God and even after his Bible photo op where he looked as if he’d never seen one before, they voted for the incumbent in obedience to God’s Will. By this same logic, if you contract colon cancer, don’t call the oncologist, simply light a candle and read a psalm.

They voted against socialism but we already have that in the form of Medicare and Social Security and free public education and public libraries. At least in Minnesota they are and so are our freeways.

My people are so discouraged by the advent of Biden-Harris, they believe the world is about to end and the Second Coming is at hand and they will soon be rapturized into heaven, which should make them happy but they don’t seem to be. The imminence of the Second Coming means that they can forget about lawn care, car payments, school assignments — just stay home and wait for the whisper of angels’ wings.

Meanwhile, I am happy that, as of January 20, a great calm will settle over Washington. We won’t see the name Biden in six front-page headlines every morning. Government, when you come right down to it, is fairly boring. It’s not a fireworks show, it’s people working in offices.

I don’t count on government to make my life worthwhile. I made a lucky marriage to a humorous woman who is never at a loss for words, I found work I enjoy, I look forward to April and another baseball season, and meanwhile I have the Franklin World Classics to occupy me over the winter. Twenty masterpieces for $15 is incredible. Capitalism would’ve charged me three or four hundred dollars. Dostoevsky for less than a dollar is communism, pure and simple. I am all for it.

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Walter O’Malley moved his team to Los Angeles because it was 1957 and not the Forties, cross-country air travel was an accepted convenience, and in Brooklyn he had to wrangle with contentious boards and councils and grassroots resentment of owners and moguls, and in LA he found a city that desperately wanted him. It was like leaving a jealous old girlfriend and going with an eager new one. Anyway, I’m not from Brooklyn. I’m from Minnesota and we have Wisconsin to begrudge and if we weary of scorning cheeseheads, there’s always South Dakota, the state where men on giant Harleys congregate to give each other the coronavirus.

I was brought up by evangelicals to hold a grudge against the Established Church, i.e., Anglicans: we met in storefronts; they gathered in cathedrals. I was brought up by Ford people to resent people driving Cadillacs and Buicks. My parents came out of the Depression and we had sensitive antennae to detect wealth and privilege: we shopped at Sears; they patronized clothiers. We drove to visit distant relatives and slept on our relatives’ floors; the privileged traveled to see exotic sights and stayed in hotels. (Nonetheless, we went to their houses on Halloween because they gave out full-size Hershey bars, not the miniatures.)

We’re a land of immigrants — even you Ojibwe and Iroquois moved around a good deal to escape from tribal quarrels and feuds — millions came from Europe who were weary of being despised by strangers and wanted to make a fresh start. My grandpa came from Glasgow to escape the disapproving eye of his stepmother. The Rosenbergs came over from czarist Russia and made the big decision at Ellis Island to become the Ross family. Goodbye history, be your own person.

I maintained my anti-Anglican grudge until I fell in love with one and married her in St. Michael’s Church, statuary looking down at me, stained glass, a priest in his robes, and now for thirty years I’ve tried to fit in and genuflect left, right, chin, belly button, and kneel for confession. My other grudges — against people with tattoos and unnatural hair colors, men with tasseled shoes, people who go around with wires in their ears — have faded over the years, especially as I spend more time in New York, a city where diversity comes with the territory. I board the subway in Midtown and I do not see one maroon U of M Golden Gophers T-shirt, not one. I doubt that anyone in this car would enjoy discussing sanctification by grace with me.

The past few years have seen a tremendous increase in grudgery in our country — need I point this out? We the righteous and civic-minded and tolerant cross the street to avoid having to talk to you yahoos and yo-yos. And this will do us no good in the years ahead. So we need to relax our loathing of each other. Especially our enormous grudge against Republicans. Yes, bug-eyed chinless Mitch has stiffed the country at every turn, trying to maintain minority rule, and yes, Lucky Lindsey gave us a 6-3 Supreme Federalist Court that is prepared to reaffirm the Dred Scott decision, but it’s time to forgive and put aside our enmity for large men in golf pants who comb their hair into ducktails using pomade that keeps the wings nicely feathered even in a stiff headwind. As a sign of reconciliation, I am going to bleach my hair and start following the Bible. It is a tremendous tremendously good book, a fantastic book. It’s the greatest ever. The greatest ever. And guess what. It’s in English so any true American can read it and that is a beautiful beautiful thing.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

With Michael Feinstein (pictured), Metropolitan Opera Tenor Raul Melo, and Inga Swearingen. Scripts include English Majors, Guy Noir, and a sound effects sketch.

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It’s the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), who founded a commune called Fruitlands and became a vegan before the term even existed.

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“We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.” –Joy Harjo

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It’s the birthday of novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), who said, “My only desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error.”

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Writing

A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Read More

Looking forward to Uncle Joe

A guy my age is going to be president in a few weeks, a cheerful guy, not a scowly one, and I think it’s going to be an instructive four years for the nation. Growing old is, along with marriage and religious faith and hiking the Grand Canyon, one of life’s fascinating experiences, one to look forward to. It is the reason your mother told you to look both ways before crossing the street and to chew your food thirty times before swallowing. It’s the reason I stopped smoking: after twenty years of cigarettes, you’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities, time to move on. And now here I am, floating along at 78, an age at which the obituaries are becoming more and more interesting.

Read More

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain — and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Read More

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Read More

A column that doesn’t mention his name? Yes, indeed.

New York is a city of fast women, as I know from my morning walk — one after another, they say, “On your left,” and they stride past, grandes dames and leggy lasses in a hurry to get somewhere, and meanwhile I shuffle along, a slow-moving obstruction, no schedule, nobody’s waiting in a coffee shop for me to come talk shop. This is the freest I’ve felt since I was a kid. I could hop on the A train and ride out to Far Rockaway and watch the Atlantic waves roll in on the shore and observe planes landing at JFK and I wouldn’t even need to invent a reason.

Instead I walk into Central Park and sit down on a bench by the dog run, an acre of grass where people let their dogs off the leash so they can tear around in a circle chasing each other (the dogs, that is), yapping and woofing happily. Apartment dogs enjoying a brief period of wildness as their owners stand in a group and converse. It’s a sociable scene, the dog run. Dogs in euphoria and people socializing who ordinarily would pass each other with eyes averted. An urban phenomenon.

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What is normality and do we want it?

So here we are, locked down in our tiny village since March, winter on the way, chilly winds over the tundra, we’re waiting for men on a dogsled to bring the sacred COVID vaccine, meanwhile we hunker in our dark hut and while away the hours telling tales of old conquests. I try to while but whiling is not my strong suit and I’ve had no conquests, only a series of lucky breaks. I married well. I was born late enough so that medicine had figured out how to repair my congenital heart defect, which enabled me to enjoy the marriage a good deal longer. I took up writing as a profession, which is advantageous for a man with a long face and no social skills. I could list others.

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Enough of the news, onward with friendship

Someday we shall look back at these golden October days with wonder and amazement, how good life was even in a pandemic during a lunatic. Here in New York City, everyone wears a mask, there is a high level of civility, and though riding down Columbus Avenue feels like we’re driving across a freshly plowed field, life is good. I sat in a sidewalk café with a friend on Sunday, unmasked, telling old stories, enjoying freedom of speech. She complained about the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I wrote poems like hers when I was in the ninth grade. ‘The leaves are turning brown, the leaves are falling, death is near.’ Who put the Swedes in charge of literature?”

Back in Minneapolis, where I’m from, you couldn’t say that. Too many Swedes around and too much PC and self- righteousness. Back there, among young lefties, I am a Privileged White Male, not a person but a type, but in my New York neighborhood, which tends Jewish, an old WASP is sort of a novelty. I walk around amid all colors and ethnicities and interesting accents and hairstyles, and I’m just a guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. This is a big relief. One big pleasure of urban life is looking at other people and it’s hard to do that if they are glaring at you as a symbol of all that is wrong. New Yorkers don’t.

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A word from an old WASP, awaiting winter

The gorgeous October days go parading by and you know they will end and then there’s one more, warm and golden, the Van Gogh trees, the Renoir sky: it’s beautiful but I’m an old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the demographic responsible for the mess we’re in and all the messes before it. So I prefer to stay indoors. I wear a mask, the largest one I can find. Social distancing comes naturally to me — I’ve been emotionally distant since childhood. My parents weren’t huggers, they patted the dog and I guess we were supposed to extrapolate from that.

I’m 78. I’m heading into the Why Am I Here years, when you walk into a room and try to remember what you came for.

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In a troubled time, it’s time to make a perfect day

It is a true accomplishment to give a perfect birthday to a beloved person and a whole gang of us managed to do this for my sweetie on Saturday, a day of perfection, beginning to end. She arose at 10 a.m. and went to bed at midnight and in those fourteen hours there were no harsh words, no snarls or snippy comments, no big spills, no spam messages, no knocks on the door by downstairs neighbors complaining about our shower leaking onto their bed. Instead there were phone calls from numerous people she loves, there were numerous small thoughtful gifts, there was a very long entertaining supper outdoors on a warm September evening with good food (but not too much) and lighthearted talk and some good stories and nothing about a possible constitutional crisis in November with the election being thrown aside by a 6-3 vote of the Supreme Court, none of that. She was happy the entire time.

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A former outlaw appreciating the Republican life

In the spring, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds and now, I’m told, there is a shortage of canning jar lids. This doesn’t affect me, locked down in Manhattan, but it brings back memories of my childhood home, the half-acre garden, the big tomato, corn and cucumber crops, the steamy kitchen with the pressure cooker going full tilt.

As a child, I worried that we might be poor and maybe canning was a sign that we were. Our neighbors were not canners. The dread of the stigma of poverty stuck with me until I was 18 and went to college and actually was poor and took it as a point of pride. I was a poet specializing in unintelligible poetry, and poverty was a mark of authenticity. Geniuses were, of necessity, poor. My girlfriend, however, came from a suburban Republican family and over time, against my principles, I came to love them, especially her mother, Marjorie. She had grown up in North Dakota in the Depression, when dust blew through the windows, her father and brother drunk in the barn, and she set out to make a graceful life of her own and maintain a cheerful atmosphere, avoiding the sort of dark brooding that filled my poetry, and I stepped into the role of boyfriend and enjoyed their company, and gradually they corrupted me and instilled strong bourgeois leanings that an outlaw poet should shun.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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