The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

The Last Rose of Summer by Thomas Moore. Public Domain.

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone:
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie wither’ d,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?


On this day in 1897, the world’s most famous, most reprinted newspaper editorial was published. Commonly known as the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” column, the 416-word article replied to a letter from an eight-year-old New York City girl whose father deferred her question — “Is there a Santa Claus?” — by suggesting she ask the New York Sun. She did so, and on September 20 an editor at the paper handed it to reporter Francis Pharcellus Church with the request that he respond in the following day’s paper.

Church was a veteran newspaperman, having served as a war correspondent for The New York Times during the Civil War, and the son of the founder of the New York Chronicle. He dashed off his answer to little Virginia O’Hanlon anonymously, saying, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS.”

Today, a small private school is housed in the former home of the O’Hanlon family — with all our modern fears of technology and privacy, Virginia’s address, 115 W. 95th Street, was printed in the paper with her letter. Virginia herself grew up to be a New York City schoolteacher, principal, and activist for children’s rights. As for Francis Church, the author of the editorial that has been translated into 20 languages in hundreds of other papers, books, movies, even postage stamps, because traditions holds that editorials are the “official” voice of the newspaper as a whole and not one singular opinion, he never received any recognition, let alone royalties, for his inspirational editorial. It was only after his death seven years later that Church was credited with its authorship.


On this day in 1970The New York Times premiered a new section called the “Op. Ed. Page,” a section opposite the traditional editorial page that was to be devoted to the columns of outside writers and to illustrations and political cartoons. As the Times wrote on that day, “The purpose of the Op. Ed. Page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times‘s own editorial position, which will continue to be presented as usual in these columns. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from out own.”

The invention of the “op-ed,” or, to put it another way, the willingness of a newspaper to include the perspective of non-newspaper writers, as well as its endorsement of visual art, shifted the way newspapers did business — and the way readers interacted with them. No longer a faceless arbiter of fact and opinion, truth and lies, worthy and unworthy, newspapers acknowledged, in this small way, the existence of their own subjectivity and the possibility that their coverage might be enhanced by allowing for more complexity. Including an op-ed page was the first step, perhaps, in the modern dynamism of journalism; for the 40th anniversary celebrating the op-ed, The Times commissioned a documentary video about op-ed artwork, premiered a new Web page design for the section, published selections from online commentary in the newsprint edition, and, yes, printed some op-eds.


It’s the birthday of the creator of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams Lane in Bristol, England (1902). Apprenticed to his publisher uncle when he was 17, Allen became the managing editor of the London publishing house The Bodley Head just six years later.

In 1935, waiting for a train after a visit to one of his writers, Agatha Christie, Lane was irritated to realize that the only reading available for sale on the platform was magazines or Victorian novel reprints. How would he occupy himself on the trip back to the city, he wondered … and then, the question broadened: Might not the average train rider wish to read something else too? Might the public buy quality literature if it were only available to them in a form and price more palatable than a hardbound in a bookstore?

Lane was determined that paperbacks, then mostly low-quality products of low-quality writing, could be the vehicles of great, contemporary fiction. At the suggestion of his secretary, he said, he took the penguin as his new company’s “dignified but flippant” name and symbol. Of course, the German publisher Albatross, which had already begun producing similar paperbacks a few years earlier, might have been an additional inspiration. Whatever the origin of Lane’s idea or company name, he was right: Within a year the house had sold 3 million paperbacks, each at the price of a pack of cigarettes.

Like most innovations, Lane’s idea — and his success — was initially regarded as a cause for concern by many other publishers and writers. It lowered the aesthetic value of great works of literature — a book like The Grapes of Wrath, for example, needn’t be a beautifully bound hardcover to last a lifetime, but could instead exist as a nearly disposable pocket-sized tome in bright orange, adorned with a funny little bird in mid-waddle. But Lane claimed paperbacks would effectively democratize literature, converting frequent library users to book buyers and readers of crummy pap into readers of classic prose.


It’s the birthday of horror writer Stephen King (books by this author), born in Portland, Maine (1947). King learned to write, he’s said, after a satirical newspaper article he wrote lampooning his high school teachers got him into trouble. The guidance counselor arranged for him to work at a local paper as a way to put his creativity to more productive use; it was there that he wrote a sports feature and realized, watching the editor mark up his copy with a big black pen, that he could really write … and that he could learn to make his writing better. When he assured the editor that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes again, the editor laughed, saying, “If that’s true, you’ll never have to work again. You can do this for a living.”

King nearly proved the editor right. After graduating from college, he worked in an industrial laundry for a year, then got a job teaching high school English. It was only two years later that he learned that the sale of the paperback rights for his first novel, Carrie, was so big he could afford to write full-time.

King said, “Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”

And he said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”


Today is the birthday of H.G. Wells (books by this author), born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England (1866). He failed at a series of apprenticeships, but then he won a scholarship to a science college, where he learned about biology and Darwinism from Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of the writer Aldous Huxley. But he failed his geology exam and had to leave school. Wells had a series of medical problems and he often thought he was dying, but this only prompted him to write more and faster. Over a period of three years, he produced his three most famous books: The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). He lived until he was 79—much longer than he expected to—and he continued to produce books at a rate of two or three a year for the rest of his life; in the end, he’d published more than a hundred books.

H.G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”


It was on this night in 1823 that Joseph Smith Jr. (books by this author) claimed to have been visited by an angel named Moroni, who told him how to find golden plates that contained the text of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was visited five separate times during the night and early morning, in his family’s log cabin home near Palmyra, New York. He wrote later: “While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness.”

Moroni explained to Smith that there were golden plates located near his cabin that contained the true Gospel, which had been told “by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.” The angel himself was one of these ancient inhabitants, who had been brought by God to the Americas from Jerusalem, about 600 years before the birth of Jesus.

Four years after he was first visited by Moroni, in 1827, Joseph Smith was allowed to take the golden plates and translate them for the world. He called the language that they were written in “reformed Egyptian,” which he claimed was the language that had evolved from Hebrew among those people whom God had brought to America.

In order to translate from this “reformed Egyptian,” Smith used stones he called “seer stones.” He finished his translation by 1829, then according to Smith, Moroni took the plates back. From the translation he published The Book of Mormon in March of 1830, at which point Joseph Smith Jr. was just 24 years old. A month later, Smith was starting up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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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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December 16, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
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Today is St. Nicholas Day; tomorrow, good children around the world will wake up with gifts of sweets, oranges, and nuts in their shoes.

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Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), who financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

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On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She’d complied in the past, but this day, she was tired.

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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

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.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

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What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

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 repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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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.

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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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