Grant in St. Louis

    When Ulysses S. Grant arrived in St. Louis in September 1843, he was 21 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 Chalk Skies of Bill Gates (and Other Doomed Experiments)

    A giant balloon, released in the Arctic, spewing chalk dust to dim the sun. It sounds the stuff of a late-night horror flick, but the project had the imprimatur of Bill Gates and researchers at Harvard University—not to mention $30 million in private funding. The ultimate tinkering, it sounds like something a kid […]

How Passion Became a Hobby

    When was it decided that every cover letter had to include the phrase “I have a passion for”?  How did we decide our private pastimes would fascinate? Maybe it begin with all that pressure to rack up extracurricular activities. Or with Gen X cynicism, the almost narcoleptic refusal to show enthusiasm about anything. […]

A Glossary of Negative Emotions

    So much hate fills the air, a thick and sometimes bloody miasma. We talk with alarm about hate crimes, hate groups, hate speech. But what is hate? David Hume pronounced it “altogether impossible to define.” I think of it as a dark, pulsing, amorphous monster I know to flee. But in Hatred: Understanding […]

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 […]

Are Oldschool Directions Better for Our Brains?

    Salmon can do what Thomas Wolfe swore we could not: Travel nine hundred miles to go home again. Homing pigeons can fly a thousand miles away, circle back, and arrive where they began. In her musings on Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way, by David Barrie, and Nature’s Compass: […]

The Art of the Compliment

    “I like your shirt, Jeannette!” a young woman in town calls whenever she sees me walking the dog. In winter, it was, “I like your coat, Jeannette!” If we are standing close enough to chat, she says, “I like your earrings, Jeannette!” Our exchanges feel like badminton, me leaping up to whack a […]

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. […]

What If Iago Secretly Loved Othello?

    My husband and I have been on a Shakespeare kick, watching different versions and deciding whose Hamlet we like, who better captured Cordelia, how Judi Dench managed to redeem Lady Macbeth…. Often, if I have gardened or hiked that day, the Elizabethan prose sends me into a happy doze—but Othello kept me wide […]

Is the Nuclear Family Exploding?

    The happy flurry had begun: platters and bowls passing, here was the gravy, who needed butter? One of my cousins, maybe four years old to my seven, studied me and my mother, trying to figure out who else belonged to us. My mom tried a cheery “It’s just the two of us!”—who wants […]