The Writer’s Almanac for November 29, 2018


Wild Peavines
by Robert Morgan

I have never understood how
the mountains when first seen by hunters
and traders and settlers were covered
with peavines. How could every cove
and clearing, old field, every
opening in the woods and even
understories of deep woods
be laced with vines and blossoms in
June? They say the flowers were so thick
the fumes were smothering. They tell
of shining fogs of bees above
the sprawling mess and every bush
and sapling tangled with tender
curls and tresses. I don’t see how
it was possible for wild peas
to take the woods in shade and deep
hollows and spread over cliffs in
hanging gardens and choke out other
flowers. It’s hard to believe the creek
banks and high ledges were that bright.
But hardest of all is to see
how such profusion, such overwhelming
lushness and lavish could vanish,
so completely disappear that
you must look through several valleys
to find a sprig or strand of wild
peavine curling on a weedstalk
like some word from a lost language
once flourishing on every tongue.

“Wild Peavines” by Robert Morgan, from Wild Peavines. © Gnomon Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Thomas Edison demonstrated his new phonograph for the first time on this date in 1877. Other inventors had figured out how to record sounds onto metal plates or wax-coated paper, but Edison was the first to come up with a machine that could play the sounds back. He made his first recordings on tinfoil cylinders, and his intention was to develop a “talking telegraph.” It never occurred to him that people would ever want to play music on it. The Scientific American reported, “A young man came into the office … and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: ‘Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?’ The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.” The machine was an overnight sensation.


It’s the birthday of novelist Madeleine L’Engle (books by this author), born in New York City (1918). She worked for a while as an actress, and she was performing in the play The Cherry Orchard when she met her husband, the actor Hugh Franklin. She published a novel, The Small Rain (1945), and decided to give up acting and focus on writing and raising her kids. But while she was in her 30s, her career as a writer was going so badly that she considered giving up.

Then she read a book that made her change her mind. She said, “I read a book of Einstein’s, in which he said that anyone who’s not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle.” She was so fascinated by Einstein’s thinking that she kept reading about theoretical physics, and ended up writing a science fiction novel for young adults based on those ideas. L’Engle’s three children loved the book, but it was rejected by 26 publishers; many thought it was too hard for children, and others thought that a science fiction novel shouldn’t have a female as a main character. So L’Engle gave up on the book.

That year, her mother visited for Christmas, and L’Engle hosted a tea party for her mother’s old friends. One of those friends was in a writing group with John Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. They didn’t publish young adult fiction, but the woman insisted that L’Engle meet Farrar and at least show him the manuscript. He published L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time (1963). It won the Newbery Medal; during her acceptance speech, she said: “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.” A Wrinkle in Time has sold more than 10 million copies and was made into a major motion picture earlier this year.

Her other books include A Circle of Quiet (1972), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), and A Ring of Endless Light (1980).


It’s the birthday of novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis (books by this author), born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He grew up going to church, but he was more interested in mythology, and after his mother died when he was a boy, he became even less convinced that God existed. By the time he was a young teenager, he was a committed atheist. He received a scholarship to Oxford, and although he did not like England and though English accents sounded strange, he loved it there and ended up teaching there for nearly 30 years.

At Oxford, he met another faculty member, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis said: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” But they became close friends, and it was Tolkien who helped convince Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace Christianity. Lewis described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” but he went on to write books that are now considered classics of Christian apologetics, including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and Mere Christianity (1952). He is best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which begins with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).


It’s the birthday of novelist Louisa May Alcott (books by this author), born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). Her family friends included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she was sometimes tutored by them, but mostly she was self-taught or taught by her father. Her father, Bronson, was often involved in idealistic projects. He ran several failed experimental schools, and when Louisa was 10 years old, her father founded an intentional community where everyone ate a vegan diet, no one used animal labor or wore cotton (because of slavery), and all property was communal. Like most of Bronson’s projects, the community was a failure. The Alcotts never had enough money, so as a teenager, Louisa Alcott went to work as a seamstress and governess.

When the Civil War broke out, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. She had always been the nurse in the family, and she never got sick. Six weeks later, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and almost died; she never fully recovered. She said, “I was never ill before this time and never well afterward.” Her six weeks as a nurse gave her plenty of material for her writing, and in 1863, she published Hospital Sketches. She wrote later: “The Sketches never made much money, but showed me ‘my style’, and taking the hint, I went where glory waited me.”

It was a while before Alcott took that hint and wrote more about her own life. For several years, she focused on the writing she loved: lurid, sensational potboilers, which she called “blood and thunder” stories. They had titles like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and A Long Fatal Love Chase, and they featured revenge, opium addiction, sex, and cross-dressing.

She was not happy when her publisher asked her to write a book for girls. She wrote in her journal: “Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin ‘Little Women.’ Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” Two months later, she wrote in her journal that she had sent off the manuscript. Little Women (1868) was an immediate hit, and her publisher demanded sequels. Alcott made enough money that, for the first time, her whole family could live comfortably.

She said, “I like good strong words that mean something.”

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

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.

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Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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The old man repents of his materialism

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