John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life (University of Georgia Press). His forthcoming collection, The Age of Clear Profit, will be published in 2022. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press.

Posts by John Griswold

Shipwreck Emerges Yet Again

    Every few years the Mississippi at St. Louis drops enough to reveal the wreck of a WWII minesweeper, the USS Inaugural, lying in a few feet of water, next to the Missouri shore. How it came to be there is a strange story, well worth reading. The River is relatively low now, so […]

Trucks Put to Other Use

    Of course a city garbage truck—big, dangerous, smelly—was the big hit at the local Touch a Truck event today, and both kids and parents enthused over it. My younger son had volunteered to help staff the event, and it was one of our first cold mornings of the fall in St. Louis. When […]

First Step Across A Line

  “How far, in any case, must one go back to find the beginning?” —WG Sebald, After Nature   I know someone who used to say, at key life-moments: I’m going to just [do this one thing], and we’ll see what happens. If you looked downstream from that first step, it always proved to have […]

The Museum of Everything There Is

    Ms. Charlotte Davis wanted to show me everything. I was standing on the porch of the log cabin next to the museum, and when I turned she had appeared on the steps, an older local lady with tight white hair, asking why I had decided to visit. I had the odd feeling she […]

The Houston Women’s March

    A would-be participant in the Houston Women’s March for reproductive and voting rights stood in a line of three dozen people waiting to pay to park on Saturday morning, in a lot next to Minute Maid Park and a Catholic women’s prep school. She was dressed as a handmaid, from the TV adaptation […]

The Rise and Fall of The “Empire” of One American University

The story of Delyte Morris and the Southern Illinois University he created is what Robert A. Harper calls “a story of unlikely success and a tragic end.” It does read like an American tragedy, somehow, based in a rustic start, ambition, ingenuity, and the fallibility of good intentions.

The Rise and Fall of The “Empire” of One American University

The story of Delyte Morris and the Southern Illinois University he created is what Robert A. Harper calls “a story of unlikely success and a tragic end.” It does read like an American tragedy, somehow, based in a rustic start, ambition, ingenuity, and the fallibility of good intentions.

The Manor to Which I Could Get Accustomed

  I live with a blessed patch of pines between me and the main road, so I do not think about traffic much until the screaming sirens fly past, quite close, and I have to wait to see if there is a problem in my neighborhood—fire, medical emergency—as they take the long way around. So […]

Pray Me to Have Discipline

    Maybe you too have the 2005 edition of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman. It is one of those books that seems to rise to the surface of piles of books and present its slim, red, hardcover binding when it knows it is needed. […]

Sensuous Dog Days of the Midwestern Summer

  I have been talking a long time, I realized, about finding the perfect place to live one day. Southern Illinois was my first biome, and I still know it intimately, but summers can be miserably humid and hot. Before every major thunderstorm, people in the St. Louis area keep saying this will be the […]

What Can Be Said About 9-11? When?

    When 9-11 happened I was teaching at the University of Illinois. My wife was six weeks pregnant with our first son. We were getting ready for work but stopped to watch the Towers fall on TV, as most of the rest of the world did, and wondered what it all meant. You probably […]

The Unpleasantness of Travel Now

    Start with small seats on the aircraft, smaller all the time, it seems, and the expectation that flights will be full, and no room in the overhead bins, so your bag goes under the seat in front of you, and your feet get pinned in place, knees bent tighter than 90 degrees for […]

Reporting from the World Superyacht Awards

    As I write this, the World Superyacht Awards are wrapping up here, in the Monte-Carlo Sporting, the big venue for society fundraising in Monaco. Guests are moving slowly from the champagne reception into the festive Salles des Etoiles, where they will have dinner, and soon Neptune awards will be handed out to boat […]

Whiskey as an Investment

    We have an old bottle of Macallan whisky given to us by my in-laws, who were Scottish immigrants in the 1950s. They told us that a family friend was a foreman at the Macallan distillery, and he gifted them the bottle on the eve of the Japanese buying the distillery, because everything was […]

Finding a Decorated Army Nurse

She had likely been in more countries and combat zones than WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle and had helped save many lives, maybe even someone in your family. But few remember her from life, the records are mostly lost, and I know of no markers.

Giving Mummies Their Due

    “Hot damn, mummies!” I heard someone say at the St. Louis Science Center, which is currently hosting the exhibit Mummies of the World. Who is not drawn to gaze on a mummy, even at $19.95 a ticket? Usually I think of mummies as “ceremonially preserved,” but this exhibit takes the more accurate, broader […]

Oh, Bo: He’s Problematic

    Comedian-musician Bo Burnham has a song in his most recent Netflix special, Inside, that admits he is “problematic.” In making a joke of something true, he either faces it or is trying to get ahead of criticism (or both), depending on the viewing. Burnham has been performing online since he was 16 years […]

Illinois State Fair a Constant Through the Years

    The Illinois State Fair was canceled in 2020, for the pandemic, and for years before that I was living elsewhere. As we walked across the Fairgrounds yesterday to meet the rest of our family, my younger son asked if I knew where I was going. Of course I did. When I was a […]

Handbook for Our New Alien Overlords: “Home”

    Humans desire a “home,” distinguished from “a house” or other dwelling by emotional attachment. Like the house, a home might have walls, a toilet, running water, a bed, the means to keep and cook food, some basic privacy, and storage for necessary or symbolic possessions. Ease, restfulness, comfort, and visual attractiveness are preferred. […]

Investing in Royalties

  Remember when Michael Jackson bought publishing rights to songs by The Beatles, Springsteen, Elvis, the Stones, and others? He did so, famously, after Paul McCartney, collaborator and once-friend, told him it was a good investment. Then Macca spent 35 years trying to get the rights back to some 250 Beatles songs. Surprisingly, anyone can […]

First Class Travel

  My friend Larry was complaining that his flight to Paris was several hours longer, now that he lived in Los Angeles instead of Chicago. “That means I have to watch three or four more movies in-flight,” he said. He is an actor. I had just driven 13 hours from Louisiana, dropped my car in […]

Whose Problem Is Lake Charles, Louisiana?

Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a particularly sensitive canary in the coal mine of global warming. Not only is southwest Louisiana low-lying in the age of sea-rise; the land is also subsiding faster than just about anywhere on earth, and water courses through everything.

If You’re Going to Drive that Road You Need to Know a Few Things

    First, you best get on it, if you hope to drive that road. A lot of the beauty, charm, and squalor remains, but it has changed in the nine years I have been driving it. The changes to date have been mere tinkering in comparison to what is coming. Until recently, it was […]

There It Is (Again), That Funny Feeling

  I have written before about preparing book manuscripts for publication. But not only does each time feel different; assembling my own collections feels different from finishing single-arc books, and editing others’ books feels different yet again. A few weeks have passed since I finished writing, editing, and organizing the manuscript for my new essay […]

Found Objects: Proof That Hell Awaits

    A moving box (SMALL / PEQUEÑA), taped shut and cut open several times, is labeled with a Sharpie: LIBRARY / KNICKKNACKS / & Watches / & Dive Challenge Coins. Inside are journals, books, and a little wicker basket holding money from several countries, the first pen I carried vocationally, and an acrylic keychain […]

Found Objects: Postcard to the War Department

  A yellowed postcard was found recently on page four of an old edition of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, the top of which begins, as a continuation of the previous page, “Fools. On that day there was to be an exhibition of fireworks in the Place de Grève, a May-tree planted at the […]


    Newt is an orange tabby that hangs out on the extensive bike trails in St. Louis’ Metro East. Chances are, if you are walking, running, or cycling in Newt’s territory and see a group stopped ahead, they are petting and making a fuss over him. If the humans are newbs they might be […]

When the Sum Comes as Surprise

  One of the few syntheses available to us is that it is hard to know what we are until we are mostly formed. Others may spot aspects of us at a glance, the way civilians once identified warplanes by their silhouettes, but they are all at different angles and have varying amounts of light, […]

Part of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Is Gone

In Louisiana’s future, the EPA says, there will be “retreating shores,” stronger and more frequent hurricanes, more flooding, more heat than ever, and reduced crop and fishery yields. And as disasters linked to climate change increase in scale and number, we can all expect to pay for them, with interrupted commerce and supply lines, higher insurance rates, and more federal aid for recoveries like this one.

Part of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Is Gone

In Louisiana’s future, the EPA says, there will be “retreating shores,” stronger and more frequent hurricanes, more flooding, more heat than ever, and reduced crop and fishery yields. And as disasters linked to climate change increase in scale and number, we can all expect to pay for them, with interrupted commerce and supply lines, higher insurance rates, and more federal aid for recoveries like this one.

Hard Work and the Beholder

    My sons and I were resting while it rained. I had asked them to help me demo a damaged deck, and while I ran the saw, they carried joists and deck lumber to the curb. We had only worked a couple of hours but were dirty and soaked with sweat and rain. It […]


    Heat, like any form of power, can be beneficial or disastrous. The sun’s heat makes life possible, but 2020’s temperatures tied for the hottest year on record, which “suggests a swift step up the climate escalator,” says the Post. “And it implies that a momentous new temperature record—breaching the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius […]

Explained, Explained

    We have a one-and-done attitude in our house with Netflix. We tend not to binge; we just want something to relax with for half an hour or so after dinner before going on with the night. That can be a challenge, both for brevity and for quality. Many of the nonfiction series on […]

Bo Burnham’s Inside: Anything and Everything, All of the Time

    “Welcome to whatever this is,” comedian Bo Burnham says, a few minutes into his new Netflix special. “It’s not gonna be a normal special, because there’s no audience and there’s no crew. It’s just me and my camera, and you and your screen, the way that Our Lord intended.” Burnham, who is only […]

Master Photographers’ Advice for All Creative People

    I received a link last week to a 60-page PDF booklet called “Wear Good Shoes: Advice from Magnum Photographers.” It is worth a look. Magnum is the photographers cooperative founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour. Their identity as a group was meant to be the […]

Of Revision

    I had a piece to write, about the Mississippi. Flat shining basins, filled with river water made to slow its roll, lay on the other shore. I chose to write it because that stretch of river made me uneasy. Facing it, you know. I would write my way forward into whatever my deal […]

Lake Charles, Again

    “Here we are in Lake Charles, feeling like we are living out the book of Job in the Bible,” a Facebook friend wrote this week. “God has smitten us again.” “Who else is tired of Survivor Lake Charles?” someone else wrote. After a year with two hurricanes (Laura, August 2020, and Delta, October […]

The Boiling Age

  There often has been a sense of respite in quarantine for some of us lucky enough to have remote jobs and children who get along in tight quarters. The period leading to Covid was rough, too, after all, and my self-assignments to see aspects of it sometimes seemed more like self-punishment. “It’s not like […]

Good Trouble

    A “votercade” was held in St. Louis on Saturday, in support of the National John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Action Day. The national event was to “to demand preservation and expansion of voting rights,” by “mobilizing to pass the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, DC Statehood and […]

The New Prosperity Gospel

    Followers of the prosperity gospel worship the power of positive thinking—above all, the puritan faith that they are preordained for prosperity—and are comically impious as a result. “Expect great things and great things will come,” said Norman Vincent Peale, friend and counselor to Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Trump. But just as the cynic is, […]

When Failure is the Measure of Success

    When I was training to be a military diver, the school’s cadre often ran us out to the beach to run in formation through the loose sand of the dunes, because it was said to be good for our wind and leg strength. It was certainly tiring, and the PT would often go […]

Markers of the Past

  The Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, was quiet on a recent Thursday afternoon. It sits a quarter-mile south of one of the remaining stretches of old Route 66, in a town of two thousand. The cemetery is filled with German, Italian, and Eastern European names of those drawn to work the extensive […]

All the Money in the World

    Say a universal income was instituted, or you won the lottery, or were lucky enough to find a job that paid you to do what you enjoyed. What would you do if all your basic financial needs were met? My mom used to say, “If I had all the money in the world….” […]

Not The Terminator (Yet), But AI Has Dangers

    A new report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warns of dangers from Artificial Intelligence (AI) unlike those from androids in dystopian science-fiction movies. This AI, the report’s author, Bruce Schneier, explains, is disembodied, specific to certain tasks, unpredictable, and probably already with us. Bruce Schneier has published 14 books, […]

Grant in St. Louis

    When Ulysses S. Grant arrived in St. Louis in September 1843, he was twenty-one years old, weighed 117 pounds, and had a bad cough. Back home in Bethel, Ohio, a barefoot stableman had dressed up like Grant and paraded down the street, apparently drunk, to mock his new second lieutenant’s uniform. On the […]

The Scourge of Childhood Poverty

I have been reading with interest the new book Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty (Oxford UP), by Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock. (Rank is a professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.) As the authors say, “Few topics […]

More Thoughts on Publishing a Collection

    When my first collection of essays was coming out a few years ago, a friend asked me to write down what I had learned about the process of assembling and editing the book, which was different from writing a novel or even another kind of nonfiction book. I wrote then, “Everything is fragments. […]

Running for Sheriff in Aspen

Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb is a brief portrait of a brilliant young writer, frustrated with his local and national governments, applying his beliefs to the practice of grassroots politics instead of keeping to the commentariat. For any young writers who wish to “write like Hunter S. Thompson,” or fans who love the Johnny Depp portrayal, the documentary will be instructive.

The New Digital Ownership of Art

    Something important has happened in the art world: the possibility of exclusive ownership of digital art, by blockchain technology. As with Bitcoin, a digital “certificate of authenticity” can be embedded in digital art, making it unique and therefore more collectible. The application of the existing technology to artwork has suddenly caught on, with […]

Art and Advocacy Collaborations

    The question in yesterday’s Zoom event hosted by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, in St. Louis, was how artist residencies, art institutions, universities, and activist organizations might work together for social justice. How do you measure collaborative success in such projects? One answer: policy change. The host, Geoff Ward, is Professor of African and […]

Tulpan a Beautiful Homage to the Steppe

  A stampede of camels groan in the red dust; a dog barks as it streaks past a yurt, in pursuit. This is the opening of Tulpan (2008), a Kazakh narrative film streaming now as part of Filmatique’s Foreign Language Oscar Submissions curation. The film won many awards internationally, including the Prix Un Certain Regardat […]

The Booksellers Shows Labor of Love and Obsession

    The documentary The Booksellers was set to release theatrically in 2020, but the pandemic hit, and it made its way to Amazon Prime. The film is a group portrait of lovesickness—the ecstasy, labor, and sometimes disappointment of the spurned, of book dealers and collectors. “If you’re a collector you’re a sick, obsessive, compulsive […]

Dreiser in St. Louis

One of the literary figures whose association with St. Louis has been mostly forgotten is Theodore Dreiser, author of the novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dreiser lived and worked in St. Louis for 16 formative months, from November 1892 to March 1894. He was only 21 when he arrived, and other than five […]

The Great Volunteer Corps Preserving Our Family Histories

    The website Find A Grave was started in 1995 by a man named Jim Tipton, as an amateur tribute site for celebrity graves. It became a commercial site in 1998 and began posting photos, submitted by other people, of non-celebrity graves. Genealogists and families who were unable to visit relatives’ gravesites loved it. […]

Impeachment Shifts to Defense

  The prosecution rested today, in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, five to six hours ahead of schedule. The Senate is adjourned until noon Eastern, Friday, when Trump’s lawyers will mount a defense, on the fourth day of the trial. Over the three days so far, nine House Democrats chosen by Speaker Pelosi […]

Emotions at the Impeachment

  The genuine emotion on the first day of the impeachment trial, today, came from US Representative Jamie Raskin, of Maryland’s 8th District, who is the lead manager for the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Raskin’s opening statement was calm, succinct, and plainly-worded. “Because I’ve been a professor of constitutional law for three decades, I […]

Eat Your Spinach

  When I was a kid, in the Midwest, spinach was obviously good for you because it came hygienically frozen in blocks straight from the factory and was bitter as sin in the pot. Who would ever have eaten that boiled mush if it did not provide the iron we were all supposedly lacking? (Braunschweiger, […]

The Dig and Drama

      The problems for writers of historical fiction may be little different from those of anyone using “true events” as the basis of their stories. Sources may be more distant, but the real issue remains: which drama, among the welter of life, historical accounts, and potential metaphors will be portrayed? The Dig, a […]

An Echo Through a Train of Rooms: Father and Son at the End of an Era

My sons are everything to me, and I appreciate any remaining chances to share in their understandings. Like many things in American life now, this also is a tug between the conservative (preserving their safety, and our money, time, and effort) and the liberal (being open to new views and experiences).

No Time for Caution, They Say

    Inaugural Day was bright and cold, with 200,000 small flags replacing an audience on the Mall, and the capital an occupation zone. The number of deaths from Covid passed 400,000, more than our WWII dead, as the sitting President winged away. None of it felt normal or right, but many watched in tears, […]

Adult Education in the Pandemic

    There are online classes or sessions of all kinds these days, such as The Great Courses (“Learn at your own pace with no schedule, while exercising, commuting, or just relaxing. Just you and the world’s greatest professors!”); TED Talks (“free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers”); and the ones in this list […]

The Ad Hoc Tribes of Violence

  As law enforcement and amateur Internet sleuths continue to identify those who stormed Congress on Wednesday, some are poring over video of a “disciplined” group in tactical gear, who walk single-file, hand on the person in front of them, up the east Capitol steps through the disordered mob. Several members of the group have […]

Why Did the Morons Cross the Threshold?

Because they could. And because there was precedent. No, not the British, who burned the US Capitol Building along with most of official Washington, DC, in 1814. This comparison is pertinent mostly only because yesterday’s event was “the first time a malicious group has breached the U.S. Capitol since the British in August 1814.” But […]

Slow the Roll

    Men he knew liked to call and say they were rolling out. They were headed out now, they explained, when it did not need to be explained, that they were gonna be rolling through on my way to…. Going to take a slow drive, see what they could see. When he was younger […]

The Mosquitoes of Winter

    When we have lived where snow is possible at Christmas, we have always felt a little sorry for those in warmer climates. I remember a deep-snow winter in my Southern Illinois childhood that broke all records, and every Christmas since, the kid that I was emerges from the playroom in my brain to […]

After the Hurricanes, the Holidays

    It is 72 degrees and raining again in Lake Charles. It has been raining off and on for days. There is an ongoing mosquito infestation, despite two US Air Force C-130s bombing the city with insecticide. Lake Charles, Louisiana, a city of 78,000 on the Gulf Coast, was hit directly by two hurricanes […]

The Recipe in the Writing Class

Never pin your financial hopes on a legume. Ham and beans is really about making use of what one already has at hand, driving one’s own good luck by not wasting opportunities, such as a few handfuls of hard beans and the inedible shank of a pig left over from Christmas dinner.

Pathetic ‘Mischief’: 3 Figures of the Alt-Right

    The Atlantic’s first documentary, White Noise, is directed by Daniel Lombroso, who also did the camera work. It was Lombroso who captured the images in 2016 of white nationalist Richard Spencer (“a kind of professional racist in khakis,” says the SPLC) chanting “Hail, Trump!” at an event, and members of the audience giving […]

Love and Stuff, an Auto-Documentary

    Judith Helfand’s newest film, Love and Stuff, puts the past in conversation with the present, and the results are moving. Helfand is known for socially-engaged films such as Blue Vinyl, an Emmy-nominated documentary about health risks from the PVC industry, and Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (reviewed previously, here). This film is more […]

New Film on Wuhan at the Start of Pandemic

  A new documentary shows some of what those in Wuhan, China, faced in the early days of the pandemic. 76 Days , funded in part by the Sundance Institute and the Ford Foundation, is being distributed by MTV Documentary Films. It will be released tomorrow in “50 virtual cinemas,” such as Film Forum in […]

Swimming to Cambodia at Thirty-Five

Spalding Gray’s images of immersion, of sharks in a swimming pool, of drowning fears, of being a child rocked to sleep by the sea, of being a “pumpkin-headed perceiver” among waves hiding the shore, seem all too meaningful now.

John O’Brien in Action

John O’Brien, the head of the much-admired Dalkey Archive Press, has died. Here is a piece I wrote in December 2009, after a visit to the Press, when it was located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. O’Brien was in his element. —JG   Dalkey Archive Press is the largest publisher of translated literature in […]

More Gloop than Bucket, It Turns Out

    As I wrote in September, my friend Charlie bought my kids and me a ticket for a Willy Wonka-ish contest. Promoter and businessman David Klein, who likes to be called The Candyman, is giving away a candy factory in Florida, and the winner will come from two rounds of competitions. The first round, […]

Nomad: Werner Herzog’s Tribute to Bruce Chatwin

  The film Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin was shown at Tribeca and Telluride, and on the BBC, in 2019, but it is just now available in the US, on several platforms. The film is a documentary on the writer, who died in 1989, by his friend Werner Herzog. “A few times in […]

About Veterans Day

Imagine if some of us were in our cups—let’s say we had a day off and a backyard big enough to social-distance—and the topic turned to military service. I guarantee that long before we reached the dregs, veritas would come spilling out: We have very different ideas on what “service” means. Some see it as necessary […]

How Bronze Shapes the Life We Live

Harry Weber specializes in sports and historical figures, and there is a good chance you have seen his work at a stadium or public site. His 150 installations include Bobby Orr, Bill Bradley, Payne Stewart, Lou Brock, Chuck Berry, Daniel Boone, Dred and Harriet Scott, Lewis and Clark, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Necessary Comfort

Misery may love company, but it adores relief. Hope of relief is what the miserable live for. A hot meal for troops in the field is not strictly necessary, any more than hot showers. Only calories count, and packaged cold rations provide them. But a hot breakfast is a psychological boost, a reminder of how […]

The Why I Oughtas

    It has been a week. Anything else anybody wants to announce? We could all use a break. My sons and I were out and about during election week, to bear witness to the historically significant, should it occur. But things in the Midwest have been surprisingly quiet, a good problem for a writer […]

Sean Connery and Aging

    I can remember when a critic went coocoo-bananas that Sean Connery had supposedly started playing father/mentor roles. This was after the release of 1986’s Highlander, in which he played a “Spaniard” from ancient Egypt who trains the protagonist to fight evil; offers the wisdom of the millennia he has lived; and is killed […]

Voting as Firebreak

When I was a kid, Sinclair Oil Company used to hand out Apatosaurus toys and soap-on-a-rope as incentives, since their logo was “Dino” the dinosaur. Word on the street with the banana-seat bunch was that oil came from dead dinosaurs. Oil began, of course, as algae and plankton mixed with the mud of ancient seas. […]

Women Save Borat

    The Borat sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was released last night on Amazon Prime, a few hours earlier than announced, to coincide with the Presidential debate. The moviefilm is not as edgy or tightly-constructed as other Sacha Baron Cohen […]

The Problematic Roller-Skaters of Geneva

    I could not relax, walking the bike path today, among people blaring country music, the guy shouting at heaven, large unleashed dogs thinking heroic thoughts, and clouds of biting gnats in the sun. But what spiked my irritation was the group of five middle-aged guys on expensive road bikes, wearing aerodynamic helmets and […]

The Meaning of Years

One of my old friend’s names is a synonym for king. I have known him since we were maybe eight, when his mother placed him in my mom’s Cub Scout den. We were all rascals, but he and I were fatherless and poor. Due to the authority of his size, and what would turn out […]

Everything I Have is From Disaster

Scholar Mark Edmundson says, “[Harold] Bloom once told a seminar I was in that he used to ask people he’d just met what was the worst thing that ever happened to them. Cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? I’m more inclined to ask about the best.” Why can’t we have both? That is, the worst […]

The Inner and Outer Lives of Oliver Sacks

  The new documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is the first whole-life film biography of the neurologist famous for some sixteen books, including Awakenings (also a film with Robin Williams, as Sacks), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars. Sacks died from a recurrence of cancer, at […]

Willy Wonka Rides Again

      An old friend (his name, coincidentally, Charlie) bought my kids and me a present recently: A chance to find a golden tag and then to win a candy factory. Fans of the Willy Wonka movies and books know the basic plot, but it has been updated for real life. In this version, […]

The Sweet Smell of Success

  If you have ever been truly poor (or a soldier or mountain man), you understand that having potable water, edible food, immediate physical safety, lifegiving medicine, heat in the winter, and basic hygiene of body/clothes/housing (including an absence of vermin), are what matter. There is, in fact, a relief in knowing what the basics […]

Here Are Some of My Pans

    Last week on Facebook I reposted something from celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, who is pictured in front of a wall covered in pots and pans. The headline of his post reads, “Here are some of my pans.” On the anniversary of 9-11, with a record number of named storms in the Atlantic, the […]

Princess Bride Gets Put to Use

    The Princess Bride, you will remember, is about some really bad guys being defeated by true love and by some charming guys who are pretty bad too. (“You seem like a decent fellow. I hate to kill you,” says the mercenary to the pirate who kills all prisoners.) In a live table read […]

Unserious Clamor

    The title essay of Tatyana Tolstaya’s Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is an account of the changes in feeling toward Russian writers, within Russia, over time. The essay questions the writer’s role, as artist and as citizen, and the role of words as cause, effect, or neither. Tolstaya points out that […]

Bond in Retirement

    The release of the new James Bond film was delayed three times but is scheduled for November 20th. Fans in my household who saw the trailer are worried it will waste the final appearance of Daniel Craig, whom they believe is better in the role than Sean Connery, the Bond icon. No Time […]

Ridin’ for the Brand

    Donnie was sitting on his porch when we passed. It had been three days since the hurricane. His house was missing half its shingles, and the city had no power or water. Next door, workmen were ripping up the damaged rubber roof of a business, in order to put down plastic tarps that […]

Lake Charles, the Weekend After

The eye of Hurricane Laura passed over Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the early morning hours last Thursday. Friday night the storm was in Memphis, where blood-red lightning illuminated the clouds. Airliners descended over the outlet mall, landing lights ablaze, like archangels in the thunderheads, and fog swirled from the hollows. It was a surreal reminder […]

Requiem for a Young Soldier Who Vanished

Maybe it was being mistaken for that other young man that fixed the incident in my mind for 35 years. Maybe it was the helplessness of an army’s search at sea, on rivers, and in the jungle. Maybe I am predisposed to worry over everything turning away in time, calmly.

Lake Charles and Hurricane Laura

In a time of instant expectation, a hurricane is a lesson in waiting. I grew up in the Midwest, where tornadoes blossom quickly, and their effects are quickly known. A hurricane grinds its way from Africa, many times, its path uncertain. Even after forecast models converge, and its landfall spot is known more surely, several […]

Postal Problems

    Dave “Tuffy” Cabusora has sold pop art online for ten years—full-time since 2017. He was afraid he might be driven out of business due to the pandemic and rising unemployment, but oddly enough, sales are up more than 100 percent this year over last. Now he has other concerns. Tuffy has mailed, on […]

The Freshman Drop-off

  The National Center for Education Statistics says there will be about 16.5 million students taking classes at undergraduate institutions this fall, which is down by six percent from a decade ago. Still, that is some four million freshmen, and by my calculation most of them were trying to move in to the dorms at […]

Sorry Not Sorry

Recent daytrips with my sons made me recognize a category of historical monument I had not considered much: the overenthusiastic mea culpa. The first was in my hometown of Herrin, Illinois. A stone recently erected in the cemetery marks the graves of “scab” workers murdered in 1922, during a mine strike.   The second was […]

Hiroshima, Not So Long Ago

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her […]

Raising Sons in the South

  We were driving to visit my hometown, and my elder son wanted to know if I thought that where I grew up was The South. I did not think so when I was kid. Southern Illinois was still the Land of Lincoln, even if we had to drive a little north for the Boy […]

Internet Brilliance and Endurance

    When my kids were younger we loved to snuggle up before bedtime and watch funny things together on the internet, such as “Dad’s Life,” an endearing music video of stereotypical fathers’ concerns (“I’ve got dozens of dollars…”). It is well-written, acted, shot, and edited. The video went viral. There was a follow-up, about […]

Fragments From an Imagined Apocalypse

Inside Portland Place was the house made of stone, the building material of kings. Inside the house, the castle, the fortress, were Mark and Patty, heroes of an imagined apocalypse, soft centers in a crunchy shell. Looking out of their own skins.

Father Soldier Son: This One Hurts

      New York Times reporters Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis directed and produced the new documentary Father Soldier Son, a 10-year project that has landed this month on Netflix. One measure of how good it is, is how bad it hurts. The documentary follows the Eisch family. Brian is a young single father—his […]

Serving Systems

      My son and I were looking up facts about WWII’s Pacific Theater, because we had been talking about my father’s service there. It is always a shock to re-encounter the scale of that war, especially the loss of lives, materiel, vehicles, vessels, labor, and natural resources. If you have ever been on […]

New Survey of Campus COVID Concerns

  Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research have released a new survey about COVID-19 concerns on campuses. Respondents were 97 presidents or chancellors at private (about 70%) and public universities, as well as some two-year public institutions. The June 2020 survey is compared with ones in March and April. Unsurprisingly, 96% of those who replied […]

Ups, Downs, Nitpickers

    My friend Larry is an either-or guy. He buys only ground beef or filet mignon. He is a former middle-manager turned entrepreneur and actor, who thinks about what he wants, makes multi-year plans, and methodically works for them. He is doing well. We have known each other for twenty-five years and speak daily […]

The Evolution of Ricky Gervais

    Ricky Gervais has made six or seven series for television, depending on how you count them, including The [BBC] Office, Extras, Derek, and Life’s Too Short. His most recent is After Life, for Netflix, with one season (six episodes) in 2019, one season (six episodes) in 2020, and a third now contracted for […]

Look at Me. I Am Your Dad Now (and Always)

    Higher education in the United States is a big ship, with a well-established route and trade. I was a paying passenger, for the usual time, then served as a line officer for two decades. One day, in some backwater in the Horse Latitudes, I jumped ship to live among the pirates. The lack […]

The True Lies of Werner Herzog’s Family Romance

    Director Werner Herzog’s latest feature film is now available, which always gives me cause for relief and surprise. In a world of Netflix fast-food, a Herzog film is a bowl of Bavarian leberknödelsuppe—something interesting and nourishing, with a complicated whiff of blood-rich organs. Herzog, now in late career with some 70 long and […]

Never Half-Ass Two Things; Whole-Ass One Thing

    The character Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation is likable because we understand he is better than the sum of the parts he wants to present to the world. Actor Nick Offerman uses his Ron Swanson persona a little in the new CuriosityStream series The History of Home, but the show rarely rises […]

Pythons on Netflix

  The documentary series Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer’s Cut) is available on Netflix. Originally airing on BBC and the Independent Film Channel, in 2009, it is just six episodes, a total of 360 minutes, with interviews and clips of the troupe’s work. For Python fans and those interested in show business and the […]

Facing the Beast

The plan was to go back to Saigon for a second tour, but we never did due to the war, the subsequent embargo, and the dissolution of my family. My mother kept the beauty of Vietnam and its people vivid before my eyes, like a sandalwood-scented dream.

Dave Chappelle’s 8:46 A Rush to Condemn Murder

    Netflix, which uses the odd tagline “Netflix is a joke,” released Dave Chappelle’s new standup special yesterday on YouTube. As I have written before, standup as an art continues to become something other than jokes, and Chappelle, who won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2019, is at the forefront of […]

Get with the Team

Grocery shoppers in St. Louis, Missouri, have begun making their choices, this Dairy Freedom Week, for the kind of milk they like best. Red Team Milk and Blue Team Milk appeared, over the weekend, in separate refrigerated cases in six of the largest supermarkets in the region. The milk itself is neither red nor blue; […]

The Blood Is at the Doorstep Applies to This Moment

    The 2017 documentary The Blood Is at the Doorstep is getting new attention during the George Floyd protests, and for a brief time is available on YouTube for free. Blood is directed and produced by Erik Ljung, a filmmaker and Director of Photography who has produced content and short documentaries for the New […]

Louisiana Protest Peaceful Despite Threats

  The George Floyd protests spread west across coastal Louisiana yesterday, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles, 30 miles from Texas. The Lake Charles rally, sponsored by the Black Heritage Festival of Louisiana and Black Lives Matter, was held at the busy intersection of Broad and Enterprise streets, just east of […]

Driving South in the Pandemic

  Below St. Louis, the face masks disappeared. The sign on the door of the gas station near the St. Francois Mountains said, Please don’t come in here if you have a fever or bad cough. If you cough inside, please do it into your elbow. The second place we stopped, in Arkansas, had locked […]

You Really Love Nature. Does That Make You an Ecofascist?

We hurtle through the vacuum of space in a miraculous terrarium that supports life. It is the only one we know of. Caring for its water, soil, air, flora, and fauna seems like a good idea. But priorities get complicated, and you might be surprised at what people think of yours.

Two Netflix Food Shows: Same Format, Different Results

Formats of food shows are pretty set these days. There are the competitions, brutal or kind. The ones that make food an oddity, a fetish, or glutton’s challenge. The chemistry-for-better-brining sort, often combined with The Traditionalists, who know these things by classical training and mastery. (I binge-watched the America’s Test Kitchen crew, Julia Child, and […]

My 2020 Graduate of Whom I Am So Proud

  My elder son tells me he wants adventure. Something memorable. Historic. Being born in the privateer age would have been nice. He worries there are no adventures left. I tell both my sons to notice what is going on and to remember. It is a historic age, of scientific discoveries, national division, political extremes, […]

Obamas Release Second Film

  The new documentary Becoming, released May 6, is the second film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, which signed with Netflix in 2018. Their first film (see my review here) was American Factory, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature last year. American Factory’s power came from showing the culture […]

Checking In: Rob Connoley of Bulrush

In keeping with my habit of wondering about people I never see or talk to (and may not know at all), I decided to see how some of them are doing in the crisis.       In June of last year I met Rob Connoley, owner of Bulrush STL, a new restaurant in the […]

Checking In: Standing Rock’s LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard

In keeping with my habit of wondering about people I never see or talk to (and may not know at all), I decided to see how some of them are doing in the crisis.       LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and its former historical preservation […]

Monk With a Camera a Portrait of Unusual Privilege

Nicholas Vreeland is what passes for American royalty. He is the grandson of Diana Vreeland, the famous Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, and related to George Washington and Francis Scott Key. His father, “Freck,” was a longtime CIA officer and diplomat, and Nicky, as his family calls him, was born in Switzerland and grew up in Morocco, […]

An Old Friend Lost, Again

If the Fleeting World is but a long dream, It does not matter whether one is young or old. But ever since the day that my friend left my side And has lived an exile in the City of Chiang-ling, There is one wish I cannot quite destroy: That from time to time we may […]

The Accident of Luck

  I have been thinking about relative dangers, recently, since everything now seems like a calculus of risk. I also want to be able to give my children perspective, as their isolation continues, a graduation has been canceled, and their futures teeter. Those who have been shocked at the sudden humbling of our economy and […]

‘Ridiculous Authority’ Versus Medical Fact

Because my overseas tour in the army was in the Republic of Panama, I was pleased to find a book, after I got home, called The Isthmus of Panama, and What I Saw There (1852), by Chauncey D. Griswold (no known relation). Chauncey Griswold was a surgeon for the Panama Railroad Company, which broke ground […]

I’m From Herrin, by God

The Herrin Massacre included the humiliation, wounding, and murder, by gun, rope, and knife, of unarmed men. Like the actions of any mob, it was irrational and grotesque, and there can be no defense of it. But there are better and lesser ways of telling stories. I have come to think of the massacre as an American tragedy, in which two old but opposed visions of our country were the seeds of conflict that may yet be our downfall.

Farming-Out Air Power

Two-and-a-half hours north of St. Louis, in Quincy, Illinois, there is a private air force bigger than half the world’s combat air forces. In size, it ranks somewhere between South Africa’s and Mexico’s, and is growing (and hiring). The US military welcomes its existence. Don Kirlin owns Air USA, “the leader in military combat readiness […]

Wolf for Dinner, Again

With hoarding evident from empty shelves, and fears of food insecurity in the news, people are naturally thinking of previous, widespread shortages, as in the Depression and during WWII. One recent Internet meme says, “Ya’ll are about to learn why your grandma hoarded frozen butter and washed her aluminum foil.” A video made in earnest […]

What If We Froze the Economy?

Even amidst the pandemic, historic unemployment, and the near-halt of our lives, many have worries about what will happen when isolation eases. Like the rumble of an avalanche yet to be seen, there are plenty of signs that economic problems are snowballing to hit later. What will happen after a third of Americans do not […]

Wisconsin Voting is a Mess

As Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson has pointed out, the sudden eruption of problems in Wisconsin elections this week has national importance, since it serves as warning for what could happen on the third of November. As she puts it, “It’s hard to imagine that the election of a state judge in Wisconsin matters […]

Heroism When Needed, Then as Now

Karl was from Springsteenland. Sammy had left the island of Puerto Rico for the first time. Moses came from the part of New York that is nearly Canada. I was from Midwest coal country. We met at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, cold-war warriors not turned 20. We were Americans in a time when America needed a […]

Food Security and COVID-19

As we have seen, hoarding causes things to disappear from supermarket shelves. We also know it is illogical, since there is neither increased need for some of those items, nor a production shortage of them. (The first and most obvious example was toilet paper.) I shop only every 10 days or so and am surprised […]

What Does ‘Using Your Time Well’ Mean Now?

An old friend, poet Les Kay, said on Facebook today what many of us have been thinking: “Couldn’t get to sleep last night for some reason. Woke up with cough and sweating. No big deal in normal times. Easily explained as allergies and a bad dream in normal times. That’s precisely what it was, I’m […]

Essential Workers’ Next Move

Factory workers, grocery workers, delivery drivers, first responders and medical-facility personnel, garbage workers, gas-station employees, pharmacy staffs, mail carriers, public-utility employees, daycare and nursing-home attendants are essential to keeping necessary services running, now more than ever. But many have been viewed historically as expendable instead and have not seen adequate pay and benefits for that […]

Little Car, Big Impact

In the middle of her life, fortunes falling, my mother bought a little car with the beauty of a well-made toy. It was economical, utilitarian, self-effacing, and anti-macho—all the things she needed or wanted at that point.

The President and the Leprechaun

Malarial drugs as hope for COVID-19 treatment have been much in the news of late, mostly because President Trump has touted chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine multiple times. “I’m a smart guy,” he said. “I feel good about it. And we’re going to see. You’re going to see soon enough.” He has also suggested drug cocktails such […]

Housing and the American Dream

The director of a recent Independent Lens documentary says in interview that her parents bought a small home in 1963. “They easily got a $15,000 mortgage, they stayed there for over 40 years, the house grew in value and turned into their only and best investment. It financed their retirement and my education. I never […]

Being a Good American in a Pandemic

NPR was talking yesterday about small businesses as the backbone of our economy, and how staying at home during the pandemic will cause bankruptcies down the line, for everyone from the coffee-cart vendor on the corner to childcare providers. Small businesses are 44% of the US economy but “create two-thirds of net new jobs and […]


My mother stood in the pool. I held tightly to the edge with one hand and reached out to her with the other. I knew she was shortening her reach each time, which frightened, angered, and exhilarated me. But she never failed to grasp my hand and pull strongly when needed, so I sailed across […]

The Devil and Tom Petty

This week as I hid behind my laptop from the dangers of the world I became interested again in one of Tom Petty’s songs, “Spike,” which I have listened to many times before. There are probably a dozen live versions on YouTube (Songkick says Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played 1,123 concerts, which sounds low), […]

Tracking Hate in Near Real-Time

Memes can be fun, witty, stupid, or offensive, but they are also used by right-wing and other hate groups to spread propaganda, and their use has increased. A report was released last week on the danger to our country from this “memetic warfare.” “Cyber Swarming, Memetic Warfare and Viral Insurgency: How Domestic Militants Organize on […]

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code

A new documentary, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, is now streaming on PBS. Directed and produced by Judith Helfand, the film is an adaption of Eric Klinenberg’s first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Cooked “tells the story of the tragic 1995 Chicago heatwave, the most traumatic in U.S. history, in […]

The Semi-Permeable Membrane to the World

Pity the poor writer, still in jammies, fourth cup growing cold, reclined on the couch as people head off to honest jobs. (An argument the night before with his teen son, who said Bill Gates’ talent and his having to code in a garage justify the billions the unwashed do not earn.) A story is coming […]

The Death of George Steiner, “Remembrancer”

George Steiner, critic, essayist, and fiction writer, died this week at the age of 90. He published more than 40 books, including The Death of Tragedy; Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966; In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture; and After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. He wrote regularly for the TLS, […]

The Beatles and the Great Divide

Peter Jackson, who made the restoration “documentary” They Shall Not Grow Old, has announced he will release a new, happier, edit of the documentary film Let It Be this year. The film Let It Be was made by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg from the Beatles’ January 1969 “Get Back sessions,” which became their album Let It […]

In Disagreement, Where Can We Turn?

Family, friends, and other trusted people often serve as back-ups to parts of ourselves we hope to return to. They are our satellite campuses, our branch libraries, our outposts in wildernesses where we do not often go. The other day I posted a screed on social media by a dead political writer, about a long-dead […]

“Round and Round and Round You Go”¹

A friend told me he would visit a Chuck Berry house museum if it was filled with guitars. I said it was likely never filled with guitars when Berry was starting out, and it was important that the music came despite (or due to?) a lack of things.

Returning Minimalism to Its Roots

“Minimalism champions living with less, but Marie’s tidying method encourages living with items you truly cherish,” says the site for Marie Kondo, the self-help guru you are probably familiar with, if only as a reader. For a few days last year, some viewers of her Netflix show took to social media to decry her plan […]

Nowhere Man

Last week I finished three of Pico Iyer’s recent books: Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (an anatomy of a single season, over the years, in Japan); A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations; and The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. All are nonfiction, and excellent. For a self-proclaimed non-adherent to […]

Bong Joon-ho on the Oscar Circuit

It is the season of wooing, in which film studios send their directors and stars to make the circuit of “tastemaker screenings” and build support for Oscar campaigns. Director Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, is up for several Academy Awards, […]

And Just Like That, Marijuana Was Legal

For many of us who grew up in Illinois, the legalization of marijuana feels weird. Illinois banned cannabis in 1931, and in my little town, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we called it dope, as if it was a serious thing indeed. My kids make fun of me now for calling it that. Governor Pritzker […]

Deepfakes and Other Disinformation

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a hearing this week on the Digital Age and Disinformation, but it was the same morning President Trump spoke, live, about Iran’s retaliation for the Soleimani killing. The hearing on online tech got lost as we all watched to find out if the […]

When Government Works It Makes You Want to Cry

I re-visited the 10-year old documentary The Civilian Conservation Corps this week, as relief from the news that we were stumbling toward another war. Because of the timing, I found it more moving than the first time I saw it, on PBS’s American Experience. It was directed by Robert Stone—not the novelist, but the documentary […]

The Irishman as Teaching Opportunity

Martin Scorsese’s most recent film, The Irishman, is unusual in several ways: It is a Netflix Original (but had a one-month theatrical run). It is three-and-a-half hours long. And it (badly) CGIs the aging actors for flashback scenes. The film also could serve as bookend for Scorsese’s gangster-obsessed career. For all any of us know, […]

Cabin Porn When It’s Most Needed

In the brief interval between our extended family’s stomach flu and my sudden craving for kimchee (the mouth waters in both cases), I spent one convalescent day on an improvised bed on the floor looking at Cabin Porn. The blog, which began in 2009, features photos of cabins, huts, retreat homes, abandoned and repurposed buildings, […]

In the Homes of My Masters

Near the site of a teahouse for weary travelers in Bashō’s time, now wilderness, something big crashed around in the brambles and vines on a slope, under which I could hear a stream burbling. Then there was birdsong and a light-filled clearing. I did not want to spend the night with my audience.

Are We Allowed to Believe in Vulgarity Anymore?

I have been thinking of Vladimir Nabokov, who makes a connection between vulgarity and morality in his essay “Philistines and Philistinism,” collected in his Lectures on Russian Literature. The essay is an indictment of consumerism and not thinking for yourself—bourgeois life in the Flaubertian sense. “A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of […]

Military Sympathies, 75 Years After Battle of the Bulge

This week begins the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, when Hitler tried to split the advancing Allied line in the Ardennes and re-take the port of Antwerp. It was his last major counteroffensive. The 75th anniversary of European Theater events really got going on June 6th of this year, for D-Day, and will […]

Christmas Curios

  Holidays are so soaked in feelings that their public meanings are often mere pretense. Think of those who feel, for instance, that the most important film of Christmas is the one about that guy from 12 Monkeys trying to machine-gun young Severus Snape. The emotional tone of Christmas for me is mostly light and […]

Trapped in the Drive-Thru

I was headed home on the highway out of the city and wanted fast food real bad. But I did not stop; I never stop on that route. The problem is not the neighborhoods. It is the side roads with metal debris on them waiting to pop a tire or get kicked up through the […]

Belated Film Review: Okja, by Bong Joon Ho

Bong Joon Ho is a South Korean filmmaker with seven films now, the most recent being 2019’s Parasite, the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the first unanimous decision by the jury in several years. Bong’s films are often described as black comedies or fables, for their “metaphorical” qualities. The New […]

The Ideal Situation

A star that was ejected from the black hole at the center of our galaxy, five million years ago, was first seen recently, moving at incredible speed. The observation of gamma-ray explosions seven billion light-years away—“the highest-energy light ever seen from celestial sources”—was announced just this year. Our time feels historic; in the realm of […]

The Challenge of Saying

As the impeachment inquiry makes clear—again—it is difficult to say that which is so. To say true things colorfully or poetically is harder; comically may be even harder; and directly or briefly the hardest of all. “Simplicity is the final achievement,” Chopin is said to have said. “After one has played a vast quantity of […]

Gettysburg and the Problems of Filling a Form

Gettysburg: An American Noh, like most Noh, is nearly plotless. It is “about” a veteran, and descendant of Union General Hancock, who travels to Gettysburg National Military Park, where he meets the ghost of Confederate General Armistead.

Listening Circles on School Violence

The Edwardsville (Illinois) High School had two incidents this month that resulted in the district organizing “listening circles” for parents. On Tuesday, November 5, “EHS Administration was made aware of a racially insensitive and inappropriate social media post that was sent off campus by one student to others via the social media platform, Snapchat,” Dr. […]

“Dolemite is My Name” a Gentle Raunch

For years there were questions about where Eddie Murphy went. It is true that, apart from his Shrek work, and a movie called Mr. Church, in 2016, Murphy has not done much for a long decade. His fans have wondered when his “comeback” might occur. It appears that time has arrived. The first sign is […]

Richard Serra at the Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis had special programming on Saturday, but there was time before it began to look at the exhibits and stroll the grounds. Joe, evidently named for Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., sits in a courtyard down a flight of stairs. The sculpture, one of Richard Serra’s “Torqued Spirals,” is a 125-ton […]

How We Get Along

It is one thing to live within a system you cannot admire, and another to do something about it. Those who vowed to move to Canada after the re-election of George W. Bush know this, as do those who vow civil war if Trump is impeached. Not feeling good about your subjective experience among the […]

Peter Matthiessen and the Scale of the World

Peter Matthiessen’s The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness was the same book in the 1980s, when I first read it, as it was on publication in 1961. In the 25-year interval forces had changed the Amazon, but their effects were not as apparent as they have become now. This means the […]

Native Americans Apply the Methods of Sacha Baron Cohen

The video seems legit, with its corporate-sounding platitudes and scenes of pretty families. “Everyone deserves energy,” it begins. “Energy fuels our favorite moments. But lately, the pathway to prosperity has been blocked. Those who live in the way of energy pipelines are also standing up against them, and it’s for good reason.” Cut to the […]

Scary Movies

My extended family has other obligations on Halloween, so we agreed tonight is the night some of us will watch a scary movie on the side of a neighbor’s building. I am not a fan of horror movies, for some of the same reasons I do not consider Stephen King a great literary figure—or maybe […]

Paul Rudd is Not Feeling Like Himself

The first season of the new streaming comedy Living with Yourself just dropped on Netflix. Each of the eight episodes is under 30 minutes, so the entire season can be binged in a night. It is worth a watch. Paul Rudd (most recently, Ant-Man) plays the starring (dual) role. Irish-born Aisling Bea costars as his […]

The Rise and Fall of the Louisiana Coastline

For six of the seven years we have owned this house, I have told friends I hoped the next hurricane would just wash it off its slab into the sea—after we were safely north, of course.

A Good Time with a Bad Idea

How will our alien overlords memorialize us, one day? Which single item will be on display in their Museum of the Milky Way to represent the former human race? Never mind your Space Shuttle, your iPad, your book, rubber tire, ink pen, or corkscrew. It will be something ingenious, wasteful, dangerous, pointless, and which both […]

Getting Better All the Time

My son was the only young person in the physical-therapy facility almost in Texas. The elderly were being led back and forth by cables rolling over pulleys. They stepped up and down on machines that went nowhere, turned circles with their feet but did not move. I was having ghost pains, an old woman on […]

The Great Sigh of Relief That Is Books

It is not a great time in the United States to say you believe in writing, reading, and books, but let me be a brave little culture warrior and proclaim that, along with having rich experiences in the world, they are just the best. I have always been a reader, but keeping books in the […]

No Time, No Consequences

I was slow to let my sons play video games with violence in them—freakishly slow, if you ask them, proving how out-of-touch I am with the hip, modern world. (Also: “Hip” is a gross word that old people use; please never say that again.) When they were younger it did make me mildly anxious even […]

Lunch, impeachment, and other transactions

I got my first email from the President of the United States on February 1st of this year, on the eve of his second State of the Union Address. “Nancy & Chuck don’t want me to speak, Mainstream Media outlets don’t want me to speak, and the Hollywood Elites don’t want me to speak,” he said. […]

The Specific Deferrals of DoD Projects

In case you missed it, as I did, here is a list of specific Department of Defense projects deferred at the start of September in order to build $3.6 billion of additional primary and secondary “pedestrian fencing” on our border with Mexico. On September 3, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote a memo that said […]

Spend Bill Gates’s Money

The rudimentary web page “Spend Bill Gates’ Money” is at, a site that also includes “Progress,” which counts down everything from the next minute to when the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda; “Life Checklist”; “Where Does the Day Go?”; and “Who was Alive,” which lets you enter a date. (Neal is Neal Agarwal, […]

Chappelle’s New Show

Dave Chappelle’s new standup special, Sticks & Stones, has been getting attention for setting out to be provocative in the #MeToo era. “If you say anything, you risk everything,” Morgan Freeman says in the Netflix trailer. Chappelle says he is sick of PC scrutiny: “That’s why I don’t be coming out and doing comedy all […]

The Broken Hopes in ‘American Factory’

The 2019 documentary American Factory is about a Chinese glass company that opened a factory in the United States. The film is good enough to be, well, lacerating at times. When a GM plant closed in 2008 in Dayton, 10,000 people lost their jobs. The repurposing of the plant by Fuyao Glass offered hope for […]

Who Could Ask for More

The “When I’m 64 Beatles Festival” was held this weekend in Prairietown, Illinois, “a populated place located within the Township of Omphghent,” not far from St. Louis. It was a perfect day for it, 75 and sunny. Butch Moore and Alan White, who are often performing down at the Stagger Inn in Edwardsville, were playing […]

Foods of Japan

If you look back through my blog, you will see I was in Japan this summer. For some reason, before I went I guess I thought many restaurants outside of the tourist quarters would serve portions an American might find small, and there would always be rice, and while the food would be tasty, it […]

Bigfoot Agonistes

Humans have long seen nature as a monster. We have tried our banded-together best to destroy it but cannot stop thinking about creatures that never stood a chance against us. The idea of a seven-foot hominid wandering around Texarkana, or the Pacific Northwest, or the Himalayas, is an aftertaste of our fear and hope that such things are still possible.

Travel’s Mixed Bag

I am back from Japan, where I had many beautiful experiences, a couple of weird ones, and some I cannot write until later. “Was it transcendent?” my nephew asked at the barbecue at the lake. He is generous and kind, so he was hoping I would say yes, most of all for my sake. It […]

All That We See or Seem

When Bashō, following Zen, implies again and again that life is a dream, something in me rebels. His entire practice was to capture concrete, sensory details of the physical world, so “dreamlike” seems like a contradiction. Yet even his final hokku, dictated as he was dying, and partial because his assistant did not hear the […]

‘Yamato’ Means ‘Great Harmony’

Fifteen miles down the rail line from Hiroshima, City of Peace, is the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly called The Yamato Museum, a paean to the greatness of Japan’s navy in WWII. The Yamato, largest battleship ever built, was completed at Kure Dockyard the week after Pearl Harbor and was sunk by the US in […]


As the site of the world’s first atomic-bombing, and a consequence of suffering its horrors, Hiroshima calls itself “City of Peace” and promotes nonviolence and nuclear disarmament. But it is also a normal, mid-century-ugly city, with 1.2 million inhabitants, a diverse modern economy, a symphony, museums, parks, a pro baseball team, and irritable cabbies who […]


It was hot in Kyoto, with the Gion Festival underway, and it would stay hot. Globally it was the hottest month in recorded history. In a week, 57 people died in Japan and another 18,347 were taken to hospital for heat injuries. There was a high-pressure front, the news said. The Gion Festival originated in […]

How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?

I was caught off-guard, in Matsumoto and then Yamanaka Onsen—the middle of Honshu—to find Bashō again. That was only because I had personalized his journey through northern Japan by walking a small part of it myself. But I knew he returned home by walking down the western coast and across the width of Japan again. […]

Daio Wasabi Farm

At the train station announcers called, Matsumooootoooooo, over and over again, as a Japan Rail employee issued tickets to Hotaka, with Japan’s largest wasabi farm. It was overcast in Nagano Prefecture, hot and muggy despite the elevation of what are called the Japanese Alps. Hotaka, now part of the bigger city of Azumino, is on […]

Yokota, USA

It was a full day of trains and walking to get from an ancient mountain town to the coast, then down to Yokota Air Base, on the western edge of Tokyo. I was meeting one of my oldest friends there, a retired US Army sergeant-major named Frenchy, who was my boss in military diving. We […]

Hijiori Onsen to Sendai

The man who ran the bodega in a back street of Hijiori Onsen served me three cups of coffee, each in a new cup, with new saucer, when nothing else in town was open. It was seven a.m., and I had been up since five. He looked older than I think he was. I told […]

Akakura Onsen to Hijori Onsen

It was a gorgeous morning, cool and sunny, and I would be under conifers much of the day to cross the Natagiri Pass. Basho and Sora had hired a young man for a guide, who wore a short sword and carried an oak walking stick that could no doubt serve as a cudgel, to cross […]

Hiraizumi to Akakura Onsen

This day’s walk would be nine miles, with an overloaded pack and 2,100 feet of elevation change. Three trains, including the “Peregrine Falcon,” one of Japan’s fastest shinkansen, took me to Naruko Onsen by 10 am. Full of egg-salad sandwich, yogurt, and coffee, I had a tickle of pleasure in my stomach, and a warm […]

Matsushima to Hiraizumi

At dawn the fishing boats of Matsushima swung on their anchors with the tide. A flock of cormorants, fishing a few yards from shore, panicked as a group, plashed across the water, and took flight. The port smelled of seawater and diesel. I was headed out for another day on the Basho trail, with more […]

Sendai to Matsushima

Cyclists were lined up at rail crossings, holding clear umbrellas and wearing clear plastic ponchos, during morning rush hour, somewhere in Tōhoku. The train from Sendai pulled in to an open platform with no station sign, and I asked a boy across the aisle if this was Kokufu-Tagajo. He looked up, alarmed, and by instinct […]

Tokyo to Sendai

“Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they have sought,” Matsuo Bashō says, in the Hass translation. Too late: I am in Sendai, Japan, to begin walking a segment of Bashō’s Narrow Road. Besides, Bashō was chasing the poet Saigyō and thinking of other poets’ lives and work, as he and […]

On the Narrow Road to the Interior

I will be writing from Japan over the next weeks, thanks to The Newman Exploration Center and a Newman Exploration Travel Fund Grant, funded by the Eric P. & Evelyn Newman Foundation, at Washington University in St. Louis. My main activity will be to walk a segment of poet Matsuo Bashō’s journey along the “Narrow […]

Meet, Greet, and Gaze Lovingly Into Stars’ Eyes

Ever wonder what your favorite actors from old TV shows are up to? There is a chance they are down at the Hollywood Show, a fan meet-and-greet at the LAX Westin, as well as in Las Vegas and Chicago. It is in its 40th year. The Show is run by David and Esther Elkouby, owners […]

The Only Thing You Done Was Yesterday

Spoilers ahead.   After 12 seconds of a mysterious global blackout, the world of Yesterday becomes just a little different from ours. There is Pepsi, but no Coke; Stones but no Beatles. It is as if the secret conceit of the movie, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), is […]

Like Ice Sitting on a Cold Stove

Good writing, like any craft or art, convinces us of its inevitability. “It’s like all your sentences always existed, just waiting around in Style Heaven, or wherever, for you to fetch them down,” the admiring student in Wonder Boys says. Maybe the better word is intentionality: the confidence that a work (novel, painting, song, poem) […]

Foraging the Good Stuff

Rob Connoley, who owns Bulrush STL, was foraging near I-170 this morning with three of his staff. Bulrush is the newly-opened restaurant in St. Louis with “contemporary interpretations of historic (1820-1870) Ozark cuisine.” “Everything is made from scratch, every single day,” Rob said as he picked mulberries from a tree on the grounds of Pinnacle […]

Pompeii and the Deep Unease of Absence

The St. Louis Science Center has an exhibit now called “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” with 150 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeology Museum. “A volcano awakens, a city vanishes,” signs say. Visitors must look first at artifacts of everyday life in Pompeii, then stand through a short CGI movie of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 […]

A Simpsons Table Read, but Homer Not Happy

“Tim” went to a table read last week for a new episode of the Simpsons, on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. The series is in its historic 30th season, and the episode would not air for a year. He got tickets because a visiting friend knew someone who took a class with the […]

The Male Dreams of His Repose

Maybe you remember the Sean Connery ad. Not the one for Jim Beam or Suntory whiskey, or Smirnoff vodka, or Japanese yogurt, or Apple computers, or Rolex watches, or vaguely nautical clothing. I mean the 2008 campaign for Louis Vuitton bags, shot by Annie Leibowitz, with the tagline, “There are journeys that turn into legends.” […]

Considering How My Light is Spent

The spider came out of the molding in the bathroom, saw me, and scurried back into the jamb. It meant me no harm, and if given voice might even admit I am of some use in it making a living. We serve other creatures in many ways, some of them surprising. The latest research from […]

Yossarian Lives, But Not at Hulu

The first season (six episodes) of the new series Catch-22, co-directed and executive-produced by George Clooney, is available now on Hulu. I was cautiously optimistic, going by the trailer that loads up the novel-like bits, and by the enthusiasm of author Joseph Heller’s daughter on social media. A movie was made from the novel in […]

The Merciful Scale of Life

For some butterflies, all of life is a few summer days of nectar and copulation, a few sweet nights of frogs singing from the ditch. Scale matters. A very brief life does not see much, and if lucky, sees only good. A flea can live like a burgher on a dog for its 90 days. […]

Trump Praises Environment at Louisiana LNG Facility

  President Donald Trump made a visit to southwest Louisiana’s new Cameron LNG plant yesterday—the same day that the first of its three “trains” (production lines) became operational. There are plans for two more trains at the site, which is 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 30 miles from Texas. The plant is […]

What a Puzzle is Kindness

Henry James’ biographer Leon Edel uses an anecdote from James’ nephew Billy, who visited Henry in England in 1902 and says his uncle told him: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” As inspirational quotes will, […]

New Documentary Portrays What “Alone” Really Means

Last Breath is a documentary made in conjunction with BBC Scotland. “This is a true story,” its opening credits say. It uses interviews, original footage, and reconstructed scenes in the mix we have come to know from History- and Discovery-Channel productions. But Last Breath is more harrowing and emotional than any of those. (This review […]

Mutual Aid and Social Media

The Lyft driver drove to support his passion, he said: standup comedy. He offered his business card, with his website, phone number, and a long URL at Mixstep, a file-sharing platform, where he had uploaded audio from his 45-minute set. He said he was paid 20 cents every time someone listened, but he laughed at […]

Writing Process as a Way of Life

“You’re particularly fragile today,” a friend in LA told me. Writers are a moody bunch, but I remonstrated. “Actually, I’ve been unaccountably happy this week,” I said, which irritated him more. All I could say to explain was that Russell Crowe and other leading men of my age group had been in the tabloids lately, […]

Endgame and that Sinking Feeling

Avengers: Endgame comes out tonight. My son asked if I wanted to see it in the theater, and I said I could wait for streaming. Many feel differently. Word on the street is that some believe the movie is a defining moment in a generation, the way Star Wars was, a long time ago in […]

The Lessons of Vulnerability Go Both Ways

A teen boy broke his leg recently, had surgery, and three weeks later is still bedridden. He wanted to tell me something, he said seriously. I am his primary caregiver, as the phrase goes, which is to say his father and his nurse. As I was shutting the curtains to keep the afternoon sun from […]

Mint and Vinegar

Leaving the restaurant, I saw the poster of a rugby player, covered in mud, hair matted, missing teeth, eye swollen shut. He looked like hell, and I laughed. One of my sons wanted to know what my deal was. I was more surprised at not being able to explain handily, than he was at the […]

The Comforts of Celebrity

Going to see a celebrity in a field you do not follow is a strange thing. There are…expectations. Recognition, to start with; maybe admiration, even excitement. I had no idea who the two celebrity fishermen were, who would be at the sporting-goods superstore in town. My elder son, who has fished a couple of times […]

Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was in selected theaters Wednesday night. I got my elder son to join me by telling him the Fathom event was a one-night showing. Actually, the film will be available on a streaming service soon, and I was a little embarrassed when it turned out to be a two-hour-and-12-minute […]

Bridge Safety Is Expensive

The American Society of Civil Engineers has said it will cost $4.5 trillion by 2025 to fix U.S. infrastructure. We have 614,000 bridges alone, a third of them more than half a century old, and 56,000 structurally deficient, says the Federal Highway Administration. One of these, which is vital to coastal traffic but makes locals […]

Notes from the Lower-River Desk

Having spent some months driving the Mississippi Valley from St. Louis to Gulf—what used to be called “the lower river” by people other than the Army Corps—I am reminded of what there is to be gained by going over the same piece of land again and again. As kids, my friends and I came to […]

The Impossible Whopper

Jules:           What is a miracle, Vincent? Vincent:      An act of God. Jules:          And what’s an act of God? Vincent:     When, um … God makes the impossible possible. But this morning I don’t think qualifies.       I tried Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper” today, which is being test-marketed in 59 BK stores in the St. […]

Who Lived in Grant’s Home?

You remember Groucho’s old joke that he tossed like a softball to contestants on You Bet Your Life: Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? Marx accepted “Grant,” so they could win, but the answer was “no one,” since Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, are entombed in sarcophagi and not buried in the earth. There […]

Beauty and the Beast at the “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup”

The rattlesnake has qualities Texans idealize: fierceness, independent-mindedness, hardiness, strength, a showiness muted by dust. It is the libertarian of the reptile world. Which is probably why Sweetwater loves to hate Western Diamondbacks. They are very alike but in competition.

Pine Ridge Native Speaks on the Flooding Disaster

    The Pine Ridge Reservation, in southwest South Dakota, is having historic flooding. A dozen districts/towns are spread out over 3,500 square miles, making disaster relief more difficult for the Oglala Lakota government. Many residents live miles from main roads, do not have internet access, and heat their homes with wood. The Reservation’s water […]

Terrible Freedom

How many W2s and 1099s did you get this year? It might be a measure of how contemporary you are. A friend told me he got seven W2s, and four 1099s, this tax season. I thought he must be mistaken. But when he reeled them off—one company, then another, then his own business; artistic work; […]

How to Make Friends and Out-Instagram Your Enemies

Jealous of others having more Instagram followers than you? Want to be seen as an influencer? Paid services, such as SocialBuddy (“We drive real, targeted people to your Instagram page. Real growth, real audience who are interested in your content”) and SocialSteeze (“Our service helps you grow your Instagram account, with powerful Instagram growth, get […]

Youth Climate Strike in St. Louis

About 150 people gathered today, on the mall between the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse, for the local Youth Climate Strike. It was sunny but cold, and some of the activists worried about attendance. Thousands were gathering in other states, in Washington, DC, and in capitals abroad. Haven Coleman, co-founder and co-director of the […]

A Plague of Streaming

Netflix started in 1997, selling and renting DVDs by mail. The service was a godsend, especially in America’s hinterlands. For several years it seemed as if you could get almost any film you wanted, delivered to your door, back when HBO was limited and expensive, Blockbuster stores already felt stale, and Redbox was just a […]

Honoring WASP and the Women Who Flew for the War

Avenger Field, outside Sweetwater, Texas, is a working airport and home to the National WASP WWII Museum, dedicated to the memory of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or Women’s Army Service Pilots). Because of Texas’ climate and available land, the US Army Air Forces established 65 training fields in the state, and Avenger was home […]

The Kominsky Method: Wonder Boys Meets Golden Girls?

If you liked Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, you will enjoy The Kominsky Method, a Netflix series that started in 2018. Its first season is complete with eight episodes, and Season 2 is reported to be in the works. Wonder Boys (2000) is about a guy who teaches better than he writes. He has a […]

Mardi Gras, New and Old

  People outside Louisiana think of Mardi Gras as a New Orleans celebration, but those in the state who live outside New Orleans do not think of it much and have their own traditions. Louisiana Travel, a state booster site, breaks down Mardi Gras celebrations into regions: Greater New Orleans, Northshore [of Lake Pontchartrain], Plantation […]

The Gumbo Cook-Off Down Here

The World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-Off was held down at the Civic Center this morning. Gumbo is one of those traditions in Louisiana, like Mardi Gras itself, that is both down-home and serious business. Thousands filled the exhibition hall, and spilled onto the lakefront patio, as 60 teams of amateur cooks, Mardi Gras […]

The Ongoing Strains of America

Joan Didion’s nonfiction book Miami (1987) is a reminder of how good writing captures the problems of its time and—in time—proves them to be continuously-working parts in the bigger movement of history. Miami is more often referred to as reportage than New Journalism, but the “I” of Didion is always there, even when subsumed—making judgments, summing-up, […]

Brushing Up on a Scam

  Carl ships and receives many packages each month, some internationally, for his online business. The plastic chicken he got in the mail from Cambodia last week was not expected. Someone must have sent him the Shrilling Chicken as a joke, he thought, since it looks like a sex doll and the customs form declared […]

Reading Moby-Dick at the Newberry

Our feelings, thoughts, and memories do not change the great grinding universe. It is Ahab’s main issue, as well as Melville’s.

What is the Gold Mine?

Every gold mine breeds its own army, Hunter Thompson said. He was talking about Las Vegas, but I read Fear and Loathing when I was about 20 and was headed for the Army’s jungle warfare course in Panama, so I came to think of the phrase differently. I remember landing at what was then Omar […]

Soldiers, Cell Phones, and Security

One problem for our armed forces is the same as it is for the civilian world: We use devices, the devices collect data on where we are and what we do, and this makes us vulnerable to “bad actors.” As a recent report puts it, “Malicious use of data: the usage of data exploiting vulnerabilities […]

Sean Singer: Of Taxis and Poems

A few years ago I saw on social media that an acquaintance, who is an award-winning poet, drove taxis, Lyft, and Uber in New York City. Always interested in how artists earn their livings, I asked if he intended to use his experiences in his poetry. He did not think so then, but things change. […]

Stolen Valor Has Consequences

The photo of a US Army Sergeant First Class in dress blues appeared two days ago on a closed Facebook group for veterans. The petite, startled-looking man in the uniform, whose neck could use a good shave to bring him up to regs, has apparently seen a lot of action. His chest is a fruit-salad […]

I Eat the Ugly Food: A Father’s Resumé

I take the watch, morning and night. Check on your sleep. Kiss your foreheads. Wake you gently. Have made most of the meals you have eaten and give you the lion’s share, now you need it and I do not. Clean kitchen, clean plates, clean floors, clean toilets, clean tubs, make beds. Paint murals on […]

Finding Your Way Without Digital Technology

GPS-enabled apps have changed things so completely, for the average person with access to a device, that it is surprising to remember GPS only became widely available to consumers around the year 2000. What did we do before we had talking maps in our pockets? Printed out sheets of instructions from online maps, I guess, […]

America the Blessed

Whenever I hear of ‘culture’… I release the safety-catch of my Browning [pistol]!      —A line in Hanns Johst’s play Schlageter, often misattributed to Nazi leaders   When I hear of Schrödinger’s cat, I reach for my gun.      —Stephen Hawking   When I hear the words ‘phenomenology’ or ‘structuralism,’ I reach for […]

Giving Up on the Past

It is a mark of high intelligence when young people get frustrated with their elders for forgetting the past. They suspect somebody is hiding something, or has been careless with their legacy, or was being lazy. How hard is it to remember what relatives were like; what years certain events played out; the proper technique […]

Only Mostly Dead

“[I]t is your duty to learn how to resuscitate a lizard,” a writer in Arizona told pool owners in the Southwest, on her blog, in 2014. She provided instructions for CPR. Three years later a woman in Nevada brought a lizard back from a near-drowning in her pool. No word if the two are related, […]

The Welter of the First College Visit

College enrollments in the United States were down again last year, from the previous fall. That would not have been evident by attendance at Tulane University’s recent Louisiana Day. McAlister Auditorium was nearly full of state residents with enough interest in the kids applying to the school, this fall or next, to have taken the […]

Pressing Memories

Ever stop to memorize something you are experiencing, and it seems as if you can actually feel it grooving into the hippocampus, like cutting a record? Maybe you press harder on the details—especially if you do not have a camera, voice recorder, or even a pen—and go over them repeatedly in your mind until satisfied […]

American Writers on Displays

The Newberry Library in Chicago hosted a 25-hour Moby-Dick Readathon recently. After opening remarks by National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick, the reading proper got underway, and I jumped ship for a time to have a look at another Chicago celebration of writers, the American Writers Museum. Oddly, the AWM is the first national museum to […]

Melville in Chicago

Chicago has long been a town associated with writers. Look on Wikipedia under “Writers from Chicago,” and there are more than a thousand entries. Some are a bit surprising, like John Cusack. I think most of us think first of Wright, Brooks, Terkel, Algren, Mamet, Sandburg, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Bellow, or Hemingway, and of publications […]

Aurelie Sheehan: Once into the Night

Aurelie Sheehan’s new book, Once into the Night, is a collection of 57 brief stories, in the form of “a fictional autobiography made of assumed identities and what-ifs.” It won FC2’s 2018 Catherine L. Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction and will drop in February. Aurelie is the author of two novels (History Lesson for Girls and […]

Sticking It: Food Edition

Food is a basic human need that can be filled fairly basically—some starch, a nugget of protein, a squeeze of lime to stave off scurvy. But notions about our food get heaped on it, like mangled bacon and garbanzos at a salad bar. Consider food as a test (Eden); food withheld (by the state or […]

The Exact Moment Chris Pratt Realizes He Is Rich

You will remember the scene, near the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, when Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) admits to himself, as much as to Nova Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly), that he is the leader of his gang. “They’ll be fine, Dey,” he says. “I’m gonna keep an eye on ’em.” […]

death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades

Johnny was a mess—snide, sneering, insubordinate, a liar—and impossibly old, maybe even 24 or 25. None of us really believed him when he said his previous job was carrying nuclear bombs around on his back. We should have. After Vietnam, the US Army was a mess in general. Johnny was just another of us—the disheartened […]

Making Art Great Again

Remember Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light™”? He ripped off the term from JMW Turner and trademarked it, but was more often called “that mall artist.” His achievements, for a decade or more, were impressive—starting with getting “art” into malls for purchase by ordinary folk, who bought it in unprecedented numbers. Joan Didion wrote in 2003 […]

This Is It, Harriett

You always read about it: the plumber with the twelve children who wins the Irish Sweepstakes. From toilets to riches. That story. —“Cinderella,” Anne Sexton     Who does not have the feeling, now and then, that the pot of gold is out there, sitting around, waiting for harvest? A woman in England discovered hers […]

My First 100 Years

The meme is going around again: You are an egg in your mother’s ovaries, and she is a fetus curled in your grandmother’s uterus. The drawing is based on a longstanding scientific belief that human females were born with all the egg cells they would ever have, which made for a matryoshka scenario, three generations […]

Blade Runner 2019

Welcome to the year Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunts down replicants in the film Blade Runner, which was released in 1982. It is fun to compare a futurist vision to reality, once we get there and look back. Remember the Voight-Kampff test in the film, which identifies replicants as non-human because their empathy is off? […]

Axe Culture

Where the hell is a semiotician when you need one? The self-appointed critics of late-stage capitalism? My family received the gift of axe-throwing at Christmas, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee it was satisfying. But what does it mean? Throwing axes for fun and profit was the invention of a Toronto bartender […]

Board Games Bring Everyone Together

It was New Year’s Eve and not everyone wanted to play a board game. Not that the inevitable unpleasantness was the same every time we played. Things had evolved over the years, taken the shape of current relationships and power struggles within the immediate family. In the early days I equated board with bored—how many […]

The Forest of Happy New Year

A state highway in the south, two hours before dawn, the children asleep. Our headlights side-eye the ghostly-ghastly trees. There is the danger of deer. Making lists, to stay awake: The 400 names for types of forests. This one, which crowds the road through logging country, is called The Survivors Rallied. The Big Thicket, though […]

A Scottish Christmas, Twice Removed

Here it sits, the haggis, like some offal thing washed up from a distant land. Which it is, of course—a mix of chopped lamb’s liver, beef, oatmeal, suet, onion, bread crumbs, buttermilk, salt, pepper, and ground cloves, in a “beef or fibrous casing,” shipped frozen from the shores of south Florida. My in-laws, who immigrated […]

Being a Griswold at Christmas

What would make up for 35 years of dentists and mechanics chortling over my last name? I want to be fair and rational about this, so I suggest we just dig up John Hughes and use his thigh bone to beat out the tempo to the song for National Lampoon’s Vacation on his skull. Hughes, […]

‘They Shall Not Grow Old,’ a WWI Memorial Film

The new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old played in theaters this week, in limited release in the US, for the centennial of the end of World War I. It will presumably be available soon on DVD and a streaming service. The documentary, directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), […]

A Free Gift for the William Gass Completist

Wash U in St. Louis archives the papers of several important American writers, including some who taught here. The William H. Gass collection gathers drafts, manuscripts, hand-corrected proofs, recordings, photos, art, correspondence, and other items of interest connected with Gass, the fiction writer, essayist, cultural/literary critic, and professor of philosophy who taught at Wash U […]

Why Are Unions Turning Red?

The Midwestern coal-mining town I am from was probably as close to 100% unionized as it was possible to be, in the first decades of the twentieth century, from the UMWA, trade and craft unions, and sympathies of business owners, families, and friends. This typically meant voting for those with progressive (or at least pro-worker) […]

Crossing Over

Bridges are opportunity frozen in steel, a chance to pass from one side of an obstacle to the other. The Chain of Rocks Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River north of downtown St. Louis, is a truss bridge finished in 1929. For many years it was part of Route 66 but was closed to traffic […]

Get Shorty: Act 3, the Series

The producers of the Epix TV series Get Shorty, about (small) organized crime going to Hollywood for new opportunities, say it is merely “influenced by” the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. They even suggest that a security guard at the studio in the series, who waves a car onto the lot and says […]

Get Shorty: Act Two, the Movie

With the second season of the new Get Shorty TV series now available, I wanted to revisit Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel (previous post) and the 1995 movie of the same name. What happens when a narrative spine is used to make a new animal? In the case of the Barry Sonnenfeld movie Get Shorty, the […]

Get Shorty: Act 1, The Book

Get Shorty is a TV series with two seasons in the can and rumors of a third. The first season was released by a lesser-known subscription service, Epix, in August 2016 and found its way to Netflix this year. The second season was released by Epix in August 2018 but has not been shared to […]

Babette’s Feast and the Spirit of the Holidays

French actress Stéphane Audran died this year at 85. Audran had a long career and more than 100 film and TV credits. She worked with directors Luis Buñuel, Éric Rohmer, and former husband Claude Chabrol, was in The Big Red One with Lee Marvin, and played the title character in the 1987 Danish film Babette’s […]

Buster Scruggs and the Watchful Eye of Death

The new Coen Brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was released on Netflix November 16, after a (very) limited theatrical release. The National Board of Review made it a top-10 pick for 2018, and it won an early award (for best screenplay) in Venice. The Coens are auteurs, so they make Coen movies, which […]

The Wax Dummy’s Shame

Here come the mannequins Avert your eyes Avert your eyes Tall and cool and terrible no common ground no common ground for you and me they’re an awful sight to see …       The tourists looked glumly through the windows of the wax museum. It was closed for the day, and the wind […]

A Monument We Can All Celebrate

When they conquered distant lands, the Romans erected fornices and triumphal arches to help locals celebrate becoming Roman subjects. Ungrateful Gauls and Britons had other feelings: “If … we bend our necks to the yoke, the Romans do but lay on heavier burdens, as if we bore them lightly. We used only to have one […]

Looking Up, Looking Down

When I topped the bridge, smoke twisted like tornados from the stacks of chemical plants in Sulphur and Westlake and rose a thousand feet into the sky. It is hard to say why the scene impressed me this time. We live with the industrial: city-sized puzzles of pipes and tanks that glitter under the sun […]

The Genius of Hot Sauce

The reason we are told to make lemonade from the lemons that life gives us is obvious: Lemons rot because no one but unsuspecting babies in YouTube videos eats them raw. But as a commodity, lemonade is problematic too. Sugar is not local to our lemon grove and is costly, and anyway in lemonade we […]

What It Means to Try

I was not thinking of the modern catastrophes of movement and making-do that end so many human relationships in our time. For some reason I was thinking of Bobby McHein.

The Gun Show in the Age of Violence

The gun show was small, which was fine with me. We would not have to shuffle-walk through the civic center for long. I left my eyeglasses in the car and wore a military-themed shirt but fooled no one. Just past the ticket counter, where everyone entered and automatically turned left, was the booth for the […]

Whatever the Opposite of Regret Is

Back in what was called (affectionately in the military) the Reagan-Bush years, I got out of the Army, did a bachelor’s in English and philosophy, then realized I needed a job. I had one unsolicited offer, to manage a city-park facility where I worked summers with a team of disadvantaged kids. My father-in-law-to-be thought law […]

The Meaning of Being a Veteran

Sunday is Veterans Day, which Woodrow Wilson set in motion in 1919, when he asked the country to remember the armistice that ended WWI. Now it is a day to honor all those who have served in the military—distinct from Memorial Day (those killed serving in war) and Armed Forces Day/Week (those serving now). There […]

Midterm Elections in St. Louis

If you were looking for a place to represent the split in the country last night, I-170 in St. Louis was a good place to start. For several days an electronic billboard near Saint Charles Rock Road shined forth, seeming to equate Donald Trump with Jesus Christ by captioning a photo of him: “The Word […]

The Resurrection of William T. Sherman

I was startled to see William T. Sherman, scourge of the South, on the Delmar Loop the other day. His name was underfoot on one of the hundreds of bronze stars in the sidewalks that honor those with some connection to St. Louis. Chuck Berry, Redd Foxx, T.S. Eliot, and Agnes Moorhead, the mother-in-law on […]

Tremors and Portents

As I was headed to see the earthquake museum there last week, New Madrid, Missouri, felt a 3.3-magnitude quake. This is not unusual. In the last six months alone there have been more than 100 temblors in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, according to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) at The University […]

Seeing Braggadocio

Where I grew up, just north of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, towns were often named for more famous places (Cairo, Golconda, Cadiz, Galatia, Corinth, Sparta, Denmark, Vienna, Mt. Vernon) or with ringing optimism (Future City, Urbandale, Metropolis, Eldorado, America, Rising Sun, Herod, Equality). Grandiose or not, they sounded like something you […]

‘Planes, Trains,’ and Technology

The holiday movie-watching season is near, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of the classics. Steve Martin and John Candy, as I am sure you remember, are forced by mishaps into two days of bad travel together, on their way to Thanksgiving Day. The movie was released in 1987 and holds up well, except for one […]

Donut Scoff, Friends

The stretch of coastal Louisiana called Acadiana, from the Texas border to almost New Orleans, is often sold as a foodie culture, though its people would never call it that. The Francophone foodway has adapted to local resources, so French mirepoix, for instance, (carrots, celery, onion) became the Cajun “holy trinity” (green bell pepper, celery, […]

The Louisiana Elegies

Coastal Louisiana is sinking, and the sea is rising, faster than anywhere on earth. Water cuts through everything—in gutters, culverts, ditches, swales, bayous, rivers, estuaries, channels, and lakes. Tropical downpours flood the streets, stall traffic, pour over doorsills into homes. Geysers spurt out of manhole covers. Cattle stand in mud on the edge of town, watching […]

Knowing Puddles

  Puddles Pity Party was in town last night. I felt like the guy in front of me in line for the second Star Wars movie, in 1980, who poured bags of loose change onto the ticket counter and cried, “I’ve been waiting for this for three years!” If you are still living in the […]

Clark Gable Will Never Quit

San Francisco (1936) is a four-star film at Turner Classic Movies. It stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy, and is set in the months leading up to the 1906 earthquake. IMDB says it is about “A Barbary Coast saloonkeeper and a Nob Hill impresario [who] are rivals for the affections of a beautiful […]

Upon This Rock

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in the search of the depth? —Job 38:16   The Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral was built in 645 AD. By the year 1000 there was a cathedral there about one-third the size of today’s. But the site was swampy and peaty, […]

The Apparition of a Face in the Crowd

I went to a reading the other night for someone I have known for a decade. I call him a friend, but really we are something between Facebook friends and former colleagues who rarely saw each other in person. We have kept in spotty touch, and several times he was generous enough to Skype-in to […]

Consider the Cell Tower

Driving across the Midwest at harvest, one experiences again the long vistas of sun slanting on fields, dust rising from combines, farmhouses and pole barns at great distances like Monopoly houses waiting on a roll of the dice. Cornucopia, plenty, gratitude, safety, blessings:   Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home! […]

Of Focus and Technology

Brace yourself: I have discovered an American middle-class couple who leave their phones on the kitchen table when they work elsewhere in the house or in their yard, and they do not check them when they come back. They also turn their phones off at night, and when they leave the house to go out, […]

Everything Old Must Be Sold Again

In just about every measure the American middle- and upper-middle class act like new money. One need only glance at photos on social media that portray consumption and appearance to see that our culture violates all the “golden rules” —if you believe in that sort of thing—of those who have long had money: “Don’t tell […]

Rocket Men

NPR ran a story this week on a new “space mining” program at the Colorado School of Mines, which turned out to be misleading. In reality, it is “The first program in the world focused on educating scientists, engineers, economists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers in the developing field of space resources.” CSM’s intent is to […]

If We Had Money

A parlor game for those with more pallor than parlor: What would we do if we had no debts, no deadlines, nowhere we had to be? (No restrictions at all is so silly it shatters the fantasy; there are no games without rules.) The dollar amounts are not so large, after all, when we consider […]

On Not Knowing

You know that old joke about English majors: “They don’t know anything, but they know where to go to find things out.” I resemble that remark. And as a former English major and common reader, I see that learned skill as one of the glories of what we tremble to call liberal education. Because let […]

A Way You Will Never Be: “Star Wars” Edition

“This all kind of started because of a sarcastic comment that Peggy made on Facebook last fall,” Greg says of his wife, a privacy attorney with her own firm in Atlanta. “Someone had just gotten a Jawa costume approved by the Georgia Garrison of the 501st, and it turned out we had a relative lot […]

What is Provided, What is Taken

Communities provide and take away, two forms of power that reinforce and balance each other until they do not. Bigger communities, such as cities, states, or nations, provide opportunities to earn a living; infrastructure such as roads to get to work and the store; and mutual aid—firefighters save our homes while we teach their kids. […]

Last Notes on Unfunny Humor

Groucho Marx visited the wreckage of the Führerbunker, in East Berlin, in 1958 with his young daughter. The remains of the structure were broken and jagged but still 20-feet tall, as if the war was just over. Groucho climbed up and began to do “a frenetic Charleston, for at least a minute or two, in […]

Delivery Culture and the Normalization of Marijuana

Fifteen years ago a drunk and high driver smashed into the car that Charles and his wife were traveling in. Charles was badly hurt, had reconstructive surgeries, and continues to have crippling headaches several days a week. Because he has been prescribed many drugs, which often fail over time, he took note when The National […]

Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 3, Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 standup special, Nanette, contains a brilliant trick that has nothing to do with the special’s title, which is merely the name of a love interest who did not work out.The trick is that Gadsby begins with a traditional standup routine then uses the occasion to tear down the very basis of standup […]

Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 1, Charlie Murphy

Standups who do something other than crack jokes are not new or unusual. Carlin’s act consisted of tearing down cultural conceits with jazzy profanity. Rickles was still slinging insults at 87 when he sat down with Jerry Seinfeld in Comedians in Cars and talked about playing clubs in the early days. (“Sir, is that your […]

Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 2, Dave Chappelle

Comedian Dave Chappelle released four standup specials in 2017 that are considered his return to show business, after quitting Chappelle’s Show in 2006. The way he suddenly left the successful show (and a $50 million contract with Comedy Central) led to rumors he had a drug problem or mental health issues. Chappelle has hinted in […]

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Larry and I met years ago in the cubicle-pen of a Fortune-1000 company. Looking back, our separate paths through jobs and geographies now seem to have meandering coherency.

Jazz, the Devil, and Jess Stacy

Something odd and beautiful happened to Jess Stacy that night in 1938. It is easy to have the impression he never experienced anything quite like it again. Stacy had played piano for the Benny Goodman orchestra since 1935 and was on stage the night they (with other musicians) played the Carnegie Hall concert of January […]

Big Boxes Write American History

Local media has been reporting the demise of St. Louis’s Chinatown, another victim of big-box development. But it is not so much a Chinatown—officially it is called the Olive Link—as a small polyglot area of Olive Boulevard near Highway 170, which the Post Dispatch calls “the gritty back door” of University City. University City is […]

“The Promise of Failure”

Writer John McNally’s work has appeared in more than 100 periodicals and anthologies. He is the author of two story collections, three novels (one of which became a YA book), a memoir, and three books for creative writers, including most recently The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (2018, University of Iowa Press). […]

The 32 Tells in Your Head

A professor I knew was very interested in the ways class got represented in fiction. He pointed out that due to the vagaries of fashion there would always be new markers of it available to writers. One of his favorites then was “bad teeth,” by which he meant crooked or less-than-white teeth. (This used to […]

Hot Wheels

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hot Wheels, the little cars that are the number-one selling toy in the world. Manufacturer Mattel has a 16-city tour in progress that includes a design contest, life-size fleet, die-cast historical display, and Forza X-Box gaming. My mother, who was 42 years old when I was born (her […]

Everyday Communion

If you use social media, you know the difficulties. How to feel about those who love something you love but who, you believe in the sub-basement of your heart, have missed the point? A childhood friend, educated, prosperous, posts a tribute to Aretha Franklin on his wall. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” he writes. The only problem: he’s not […]

The Future is Now

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!   A municipal garden is a beautiful contradiction, an embodiment of the struggle between nature and human control. Visitors to The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis on a recent afternoon stepped from the welcome center into the Garden grounds, where the skyscraper glint of the Climatron […]

The Frankenstein We Deserve

The 1818 novel Frankenstein, which has birthed so many subsequent versions, was itself an update of the Promethean myth for Mary Shelley’s time. We might fairly call Frankenstein its own myth now, told by each teller in her own register. William Gass would say these versions are from “the realm of Forms,” and are simplifications: […]

Mackin’s Time

Will Mackin became a literary friend when we both wrote briefly for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His excellent “Dispatches from Iraq” there (written as Roland Thompson) were sharply observed and sometimes surreal. “I can understand the dogs, too,” he says in the final installment. “[One] looked at me and said, ‘Sometimes sedition, sometimes blight.’ Months later, after […]

Friends Indeed

Most everyone knows that bit from Thoreau on technology and communication in his time:   “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. […] We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important […]

Oddly Cool

Take Highway 55 east from St. Louis, to Illinois 70, then into the rolling hills, soybeans, and hamlets where Lincoln lunched to find Carlyle Lake, the biggest manmade lake in Illinois. The Army Corps capped 69 oil wells and dammed the Kaskaskia River to make the 15-mile-long lake, which was finished in 1967. There’s a […]

“So-called children’s books”

“[S]o-called children’s books I don’t like and don’t believe in,” Chekhov wrote to a friend in 1900. “Children ought only to be given what is suitable also for grown-up people.” He had in mind the tales of Tolstoy and books of history and travel such as The Frigate Pallada, by Ivan Goncharov, about a Russian […]