The Writer’s Almanac for October 4, 2018

The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats. Public domain. (buy now)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dangled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


This date marks the first formal run of the Orient Express in 1883. The train was the brainchild of Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banker’s son. He had been impressed by railway innovations he’d seen in America in the 1860s — particularly George Pullman’s “sleeper cars” — and envisioned a richly appointed train running on a continuous 1,500-mile stretch of track from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul). For its formal launch from the Gare de Strasbourg, Nagelmackers arranged battered, rusty Pullman cars on adjacent tracks to show his luxurious conveyance to its best advantage. Many of its first passengers on the 80-hour journey were journalists, and they spread the word of its paneled interiors, leather armchairs, silk sheets, and wool blankets. They also dubbed the train “the Orient Express” with Nagelmackers’ blessing. The train later earned another nickname, “the Spies’ Express,” due to its popularity in the espionage community.

One particular car played a role in both world wars. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed their surrender documents in an Allied commander’s private car. The car was a museum piece in Paris until 1940, when Hitler commandeered it and used it as the setting to dictate the terms of the French surrender. Later, when his defeat was imminent, he blew the car up so that it wouldn’t become an Allied trophy again.

The original Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul in 1977, and its new route ran from Paris to Vienna until 2007, when the train departed from Strasbourg instead of Paris. Finally, in 2009, the Orient Express ceased operation, citing competition from high-speed trains and discount airlines. It has spawned several offspring that have adopted the name for promotional purposes, including the Direct Orient Express and the Nostalgic Orient Express. Only the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which runs from London to a variety of European destinations and charges $2,300 U.S. to ride in the restored original cars, approaches the original “King of Trains and Train of Kings.”


Today is the birthday of the Great Stone Face: silent comedian Buster Keaton (1895), born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas. His parents were vaudevillians, and according to Keaton, he earned his nickname as a toddler, when he fell down a staircase. Harry Houdini picked up the child, dusted him off, and said some variant of, “That was a real buster your kid took!” His parents added him to the act when he was three years old, and he quickly learned that the more serious he looked, the harder the audience laughed. He had a natural ability to take a fall without being injured; many times his parents faced child abuse charges based on the way they threw him around the stage like a dummy, but Buster would remove his clothes to show no broken bones or bruises, and the charges were dropped. “The funny thing about our act,” he said in a 1914 interview with TheDetroit News, “is that dad gets the worst of it, although I’m the one who apparently receives the bruises … the secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don’t last long, because they can’t stand the treatment.”

He met film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York in 1917, and Arbuckle took him under his wing. The slight, acrobatic Keaton was the perfect complement to the large, bumbling Arbuckle, and their partnership flourished. Keaton successfully made the transition to a solo act in the 1920s, although, in that era of excess, his deadpan style didn’t earn him as many fans as Chaplin’s sentimental Little Tramp character, or Harold Lloyd’s plucky, optimistic on-screen persona. It was more than 20 years before his feature films — like The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928) — took their place in the pantheon of silent film masterpieces.

But the silent era was drawing to a close, and in 1928, he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM decided that they needed to take an active role in Keaton’s films. They hired other people to write and direct, and hired a double to do all his stunts. Though he always had work, and his MGM films made money, he considered signing with MGM the worst business decision of his life, and he left the studio in 1933. Marital trouble, heavy drinking, and creative frustration made him miserable. He returned to MGM in 1937, spending a couple of years writing gags for the Marx Brothers and providing material for Red Skelton, and then made some mediocre short films for Columbia. By the 1940s, his personal life was less tumultuous, he beat alcoholism through sheer force of will, and he spent most of the decade playing small roles in feature films. In the 1950s, he’d moved on to television, and his regular appearances on the small screen revived interest in his silent films. He was still working in the 1960s and still doing most of his own stunts. His last film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was filmed late in 1965. In January 1966, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, although he was never told of his diagnosis and thought he just had a persistent case of bronchitis. He died on February 1st.


Today is the birthday of Anne Rice (1941) (books by this author). She was born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien in New Orleans; she was named “Howard” after her father, but she changed her name to Anne of her own accord when she was in first grade at St. Alphonsus Grammar School. She married her high school sweetheart, poet and painter Stan Rice, in 1961. They moved to San Francisco, and while the counterculture movement was flourishing all around them, Anne didn’t participate. “I was typing away while everybody was dropping acid and smoking grass,” she told The New York Times in 1988. “I was known as my own square.” Their daughter, Michele, died of leukemia in 1972, when she was only five years old, and grief over her death proved to be the catalyst for Rice’s first book, Interview with the Vampire (1976). Two years later, her son Christopher — now a best-selling author in his own right — was born.

She has a complicated relationship with religion. Raised a Catholic, she left the church at 18, only to return after a couple of life-threatening illnesses in the late 1990s. She began a series of books about the life of Christ, but in 2010 announced on her Facebook page that she was leaving organized religion behind her once again. She wrote: “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”


Today is the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer (books by this author), born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862). He was one of the first American writers to capitalize on the new market in children’s literature which was created by universal primary education. At the time, most children’s books taught moral lessons, but Stratemeyer said, “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby.” Stratemeyer also figured that his books would sell better if they had recurring characters, so he created one series after another: the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls, the Bobbsey Twins. His work was so popular that he couldn’t keep up with the demand, so he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1910. Stratemeyer wrote the outline for each story himself, but he hired dozens of fiction writers to bang out the actual books under a variety of pen names.

When detective fiction took off in the 1920s, Stratemeyer created a detective series for kids called the Hardy Boys, which became wildly popular. He followed the Hardy Boys with a series about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. Publishers believed that books for boys always sold more than books for girls, but the Nancy Drew books ended up being the most popular books that Stratemeyer ever published.

After his death in 1930, his two daughters ran the syndicate. One of them, Harriet, wrote a number of the Nancy Drew books.


It’s the birthday of Roy Blount Jr. (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941) and raised in Decatur, Georgia. He’s been a freelance writer for more than a hundred different publications, and he’s the author of more than 20 books, on subjects “from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking.” He’s also a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up entirely of authors.

His latest book is Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations (2016).

Roy Blount Jr. said, “Language seems to me intrinsically comic — noises of the tongue, lips, larynx, and palate rendered in ink on paper with the deepest and airiest thoughts in mind and the harshest and tenderest feelings at heart.”

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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November 3, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

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This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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