The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 21, 2019


Who’s Who
by W.H. Auden

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day:
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

 

“Who’s Who” by W.H. Auden, from Collected Poems. © Random House, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of writer H.G. Wells (books by this author), born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England (1866). Although popularly known as one of the fathers of modern science fiction, having published classics such as The Time MachineThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds within the first few years of his writing career, Wells went on to publish dozens of novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, most of which were not explicitly sci-fi. Most, however, dealt in some way with Wells’ interest in biology, his strong belief in socialism, or his vision for the future of mankind. Indeed, much of what was fantastic and fictional when he conceived it came to pass, like his predictions that airplanes would someday be used to wage war and advanced transportation would lead to an explosion of suburbs.


It’s the birthday of Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen, born in Montreal (1934) (books by this author). He started out as a poet, publishing a few well-received volumes in the 1950s and ’60s, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and The Spice-Box of Earth (1961). He also wrote a couple of novels: The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). But he was disappointed that writing didn’t pay better, so he moved to the United States to become a folk singer and songwriter. He wasn’t happy with the arrangements on his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), but it became a cult favorite. His 1984 album, Various Positions, included one of his most popular songs, “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered by nearly 200 other singers in a variety of languages.


It’s the birthday of fiction writer Stephen King (books by this author), born on this day in Portland, Maine (1947). He started in early on the business of writing, when he was six or seven years old, writing stories based on movies he had seen and then selling them to friends. One day, when he was 12 years old, he was exploring the attic above his aunt and uncle’s garage, and he found a box full of paperback books, including a book of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. He spent the next two days reading the book cover to cover, and he said that was “where that interior dowsing rod suddenly turned over, where the compass needle swung emphatically toward some mental true north.” From that time on, horror fiction was his calling.

Stephen King has said he writes 2,000 words — about 10 pages — every single day. “On some days, those 10 pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”

It isn’t just his productivity that has made King one of the top-earning authors in the world. He has been years ahead of other writers on technology — in 2000, he started publishing some of his work online only, at a time when e-books were virtually unknown. He routinely turns down big advances, but instead of royalties, he splits the profits from his books 50-50 with the publishers. And while most publishers purchase book rights for 70 years after the author’s death, King allows them just 15 years after publication, which guarantees that the publishers work hard to sell his books, since he can find someone else if the deal isn’t working.

King’s novels include Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), Cujo (1981), Pet Sematary (1993), It (1986), The Green Mile (2000), and the Dark Tower series (1982-2012). His latest novel out this month is The Institute (2019).

King said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

And he said: “I just write about what scares me. When I was a kid, my mother used to say, ‘Think of the worst thing that you can, and if you say it out loud then it won’t come true.’ And that’s probably been the basis of my career.”


On this day in 1970, The New York Times premiered a new section called the “Op. Ed. Page,” a section opposite the traditional editorial page that was to be devoted to the columns of outside writers and to illustrations and political cartoons. As the Timeswrote on that day, “The purpose of the Op. Ed. Page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times’s own editorial position, which will continue to be presented as usual in these columns. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from out own.”

The invention of the “op-ed,” or, to put it another way, the willingness of a newspaper to include the perspective of non-newspaper writers, as well as its endorsement of visual art, shifted the way newspapers did business — and the way readers interacted with them. No longer a faceless arbiter of fact and opinion, truth and lies, worthy and unworthy, newspapers acknowledged, in this small way, the existence of their own subjectivity and the possibility that their coverage might be enhanced by allowing for more complexity. Including an op-ed page was the first step, perhaps, in the modern dynamism of journalism; for the 40th anniversary celebrating the op-ed, The Times commissioned a documentary video about op-ed artwork, premiered a new Web page design for the section, published selections from online commentary in the newsprint edition, and, yes, printed some op-eds.


It’s the birthday of the creator of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams Lane in Bristol, England (1902). Apprenticed to his publisher uncle when he was 17, Allen became the managing editor of the London publishing house The Bodley Head just six years later.

In 1935, waiting for a train after a visit to one of his writers, Agatha Christie, Lane was irritated to realize that the only reading available for sale on the platform was magazines or Victorian novel reprints. How would he occupy himself on the trip back to the city, he wondered … and then, the question broadened: Might not the average train rider wish to read something else too? Might the public buy quality literature if it were only available to them in a form and price more palatable than a hardbound in a bookstore?

Lane was determined that paperbacks, then mostly low-quality products of low-quality writing, could be the vehicles of great, contemporary fiction. At the suggestion of his secretary, he said, he took the penguin as his new company’s “dignified but flippant” name and symbol. Of course, the German publisher Albatross, which had already begun producing similar paperbacks a few years earlier, might have been an additional inspiration. Whatever the origin of Lane’s idea or company name, he was right: Within a year the house had sold 3 million paperbacks, each at the price of a pack of cigarettes.

Like most innovations, Lane’s idea — and his success — was initially regarded as a cause for concern by many other publishers and writers. It lowered the aesthetic value of great works of literature — a book like The Grapes of Wrath, for example, needn’t be a beautifully bound hardcover to last a lifetime, but could instead exist as a nearly disposable pocket-sized tome in bright orange, adorned with a funny little bird in mid-waddle. But Lane claimed paperbacks would effectively democratize literature, converting frequent library users to book buyers and readers of crummy pap into readers of classic prose.

 

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

Available December 1st: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

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In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 30, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 30, 2020

It’s the birthday of Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), who said, “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 29, 2020

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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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Grand Ole Opry, originally titled “WSM Barn Dance,” began broadcasting from Nashville on this date 95 years ago.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 27, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 27, 2020

Penn Station opened on this date in 1910. The original building was pink granite, with stately columns and a skylit interior modeled after a Roman bath.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 26, 2020

Today is Thanksgiving, a day for being grateful and eating lots of food. With a poem by Jane Hirshfield about cooking.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 25, 2020

It’s the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), who said, “The great secret of doctors…is that most things get better by themselves.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 24, 2020

It’s the birthday of Arundhati Roy (1959), who wrote “The God of Small Things” (1997) all at once, no drafts, and it won the Man Booker Prize.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 23, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 23, 2020

“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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A Prairie Home Companion: November 29, 1997

A Prairie Home Companion: November 29, 1997

A ’90s November show from Chicago, Illinois, featuring a handful of legends: including gospel singer & activist Mavis Staples and broadcaster & historian Studs Terkel.

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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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