The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

“The Old Oaken Bucket” by Samuel Woodworth, from The Old Oaken Bucket. Public domain. (buy now)

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew;
The wide-spreading pond, and the mill that stood by it;
The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy-house nigh it,
And e’en the rude bucket which hung in the well!
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.


It was on this day in 1942 that Anne Frank (books by this author) was given a small red and white diary as a gift for her 13th birthday. She named her diary “Kitty,” and for more than two years she recorded her thoughts and experiences in it.

She was born in Frankfurt on this day in 1929, and when she was four the Nazis won elections in Frankfurt, so Anne and her older sister Margot and their parents moved to Amsterdam. Anne’s father, Otto, worked for a company that sold fruit pectin. A few years later, he started his own company that sold spices, salt, and other foods wholesale to make sausages.

Until she was 11, Anne’s life was relatively normal. But in 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and anti-Jewish decrees became the norm. Jews had to wear yellow stars, go to special schools, and couldn’t go to the movies or the swimming pool. And Jews started being called up for “work camps.” The Netherlands was an especially difficult country to escape from, because the only neighboring countries were Germany and Belgium, which was also occupied.

On this day in 1942, Anne began her diary, writing about all the things that she wasn’t allowed to do because she was Jewish. About a week after her birthday, on June 20th, she wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me … because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing, and I have an even greater need to get all kinds of things off my chest. […]

A couple of weeks later, on July 5, 1942, Anne’s sister, Margot, received a notice that she had to report to a Nazi work camp. If she didn’t, the whole Frank family would be arrested. The next day, Anne’s parents brought the family into hiding in an annex above her father’s office. A week later, another family of Jews joined them, and a few months later, another man. Altogether, there were eight people living in a space of about 500 square feet. They had to be very quiet during the day, which was hard for such a lively teenager as Anne, and she ended up writing in her diary almost daily.

They were in the annex for 25 months. In March of 1944, the people in the annex heard a Dutch radio broadcast out of London in which the Cabinet Minister said that after the war the Dutch government would collect diaries and documents to preserve a record of the war in the lives of ordinary people. Anne decided that her diary was important, and that she might even turn it into a novel. She started going back through and revising it, rewriting it all in longhand, correcting parts she thought were too immature, personal, or poorly written.

In August of 1944, someone notified the German Security Police that there were Jews hiding in the annex. Only four of Otto’s former employees knew about the hiding place — it was these few people who had been supplying them with food and news of the outside world for two years. But there were probably many more people who suspected something — acquaintances, other employees, the grocer. To this day, no one knows who betrayed the Franks and the other people in the annex. Everyone was arrested and taken to Auschwitz. Anne and Margot ended up in Bergen-Belsen, where they both died of typhus in February of March of 1945, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the British. Anne was 15 years old. Of the eight people who had lived together, only Otto Frank survived the concentration camps.

One of the people who had helped the Franks, Otto’s former secretary Miep Gies, had found Anne’s diary after the arrest and saved it. She gave it to Otto. He didn’t want to publish it, feeling it was too personal, but many of his friends thought that Otto should publish the diary, especially since that was Anne’s hope for it. So he agreed, and it came out in June of 1947. Otto continued to work for human rights, and he personally answered thousands of letters from people who read Anne’s diary and were affected by it.

Miep Gies spent the rest of her life working with the Anne Frank House and promoting Anne’s story, traveling the world and lecturing while she was in her 80s. She died at the age of 100.

The novelist Francine Prose wrote Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife (2009), in which she said: “The diary is beautifully orchestrated — the way she alternates dramatic scenes with reflections, the incredibly vivid characterizations of the eight people, how each one handles the problem of how to take a bath or peel potatoes. Her naturalness of tone, the sense of spontaneity, it’s very hard to do. She was an artist, that’s the bottom line.”


It’s the birthday of Brigid Brophy (books by this author), born in London (1929). When she was 24, she wrote Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), about a zoologist who becomes attached to the apes he is supposed to observe objectively. She wrote many more novels, including The King of a Rainy Country (1956) and Palace Without Chairs (1978). She campaigned for the rights of women, animals, and prisoners, even while she was sick in bed with multiple sclerosis at the end of her life. She said, “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”


It’s the birthday of novelist and priest Charles Kingsley (books by this author), born in Holne, England (1819). He is best remembered for his children’s book The Water-Babies (1863). It was an allegorical story written to teach Christian values, and he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have tried, in all sorts of queer ways, to make children and grown folks understand that there is a quite miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature, and nobody knows anything about anything, in the sense in which they may know God in Christ, and right and wrong. And if I have wrapped up my parable in seeming Tomfooleries, it is because so only could I get the pill swallowed by a generation who are not believing with anything like their whole heart, in the living God.” The “tomfooleries” were elaborate—The Water-Babies might have been Christian propaganda, but it was also a strange and enjoyable fairy tale. It is the story of a 10-year-old chimney sweep named Tom. He falls through a chimney into the room of a wealthy young girl, and when he is discovered there he is chased out of town, until he gives in to thirst and weakness and falls into a river and drowns. Fairies turn him into a creature called a “water-baby,” which is 3.87902 inches long and has gills. He is guided by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, and various fairies in his journey to the Other-End-of-Nowhere, where he has to rescue the cruel Mr. Grimes, his former master.

The Water-Babies was extremely popular when it was published, and it helped drum up public support for the Chimney Sweepers’ Regulation Act, which made it illegal for adult chimney sweep masters to force child laborers to climb chimneys.

Charles Kingsley wrote: “I am not fond, you know, of going into churches to pray. We must go up into the chase in the evenings, and pray there with nothing but God’s cloud temple between us and His heaven! And His choir of small birds and night crickets and booming beetles, and all happy things who praise Him all night long! And in the still summer noon, too, with the lazy-paced clouds above, and the distant sheep-bell, and the bee humming in the beds of thyme, and one bird making the hollies ring a moment, and then all still — hushed — awe-bound, as the great thunderclouds slide up from the far south! Then, there to praise God!”

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

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December 16, 2018

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

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Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

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Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

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The old man is learning to dance

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One more beautiful wasted day

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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