The Writer’s Almanac for October 8, 2018

A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky by Lewis Carroll. Public domain.

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?


It’s the birthday of the science fiction author Frank Herbert, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1920). He was a journalist and an early member of the environmentalist movement, but at some point he decided to give up on journalism and put his ideas about the environment into science fiction novels. His first big success was Dune (1965), about a desert planet where people only survive because they have learned to conserve and recycle every possible trace of moisture. Dune was one of the first science fiction novels to completely imagine an entirely different world, with different plants and animals, different social classes, and a whole set of elaborate religious beliefs. It became a cult novel on college campuses and went on to sell about 12 million copies. Herbert spent a lot of the money he made inventing solar and wind cooling systems for his home.


It’s the birthday of historian Walter Lord, (books by this author) born in Baltimore (1917). His most famous book was A Night to Remember (1955), about the sinking of the Titanic, a disaster that had fascinated him since he was a boy. He said: “I think small boys get interested in things the way they catch colds or get chicken pox. Nobody knows why or how they do it. … I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner, it is an ocean liner sinking.”

But actually, there was a pretty good reason that young Walter knew about the Titanic. His mother told him bedtime stories every night about the big ocean liners she had sailed on, including the Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. When Walter’s father proposed to his mother, she told him she needed to think about it, and so she got a ticket on the Olympic from New York to London. She decided that she would say yes, so as soon as she got to London she got another ticket, turned right around and went back to New York to accept. When Walter was nine years old, his mother took him on the Olympic for a transatlantic cruise, and he quizzed all the crew members about the exact details of the Titanic‘s disaster.

So he was well-prepared to write a book by the time he was in his 30s, working a respectable day job for an advertising agency. At night he did research, pored over documents about the Titanic, and interviewed more than 60 survivors. And then he tried to reconstruct a history of the disaster, a narrative that would be factual would also give readers a sense of the lives of the passengers, and tell the events of the disaster like a story. A Night to Remember became the ultimate resource for Titanic buffs. It was a best-seller when it came out in 1955, and again in 1999 after the success of the film Titanic.

Walter Lord said that one of his goals for A Night to Remember was “to get across the point that wealth, position, rank and the like have very little to do with whether a person is good or bad, quick or slow, brave or perhaps not so brave. We get all that somewhere else.”


It’s the birthday of young adult novelist R.L. Stine, (books by this author) born in Bexley, Ohio (1943). He quit his job as a social studies teacher to become a freelance writer, and at first he specialized in humorous books for kids. But his career really took off when he started writing scary stories for young adults. By the early 1990s, Stine’s books were selling about a million copies per month. To keep up with demand, he had to write 20 pages a day, finishing a book every two weeks. His Fear Street series was the first modern book series for children that sold equally well to both boys and girls. Some critics have said that his books aren’t good for children, but R.L. Stine said, “I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value.”


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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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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

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Read More

Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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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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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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