A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Joe, is writing a children’s/young adults’ fantasy novel. This is something of a departure from his usual oeuvre, computer manuals, of which he has written more than 100. But he has brought to the task his usual thoroughness, in researching everything from ballet to medieval swordsmithing.

(I was Joe’s editor for a time, and while I could sometimes suggest stylistic improvements, I almost never caught him in a factual error. Or one in grammar. I called him once on what I considered an undisputed point, only to have him respond mildly with a list of reputable sources who favored his usage. I felt a bit like my literary uncle who discovered at age 80 that he had been misspelling ukulele all his life.)

But on to Joe’s book. The locale is imaginary, but vaguely medieval. There is a war brewing between adjacent territories. Leading one side are the forces of evil. The champions of the other side are good guys, although not without quirks and failings. They have an unusually adept and winsome dragon. But they must also deal with their own leader, an exemplar of civic corruption. Finally, there is a sort of sees-all-knows-all shapeshifter who pops in and out of the narrative. He can be identified in his various guises by an old-fashioned rose in his lapel.

Joe has a stable of beta readers, who I’m sure are giving him wise advice. I am not a beta reader, or even an omega one—just an interested on-looker. Joe did consult me recently when one of the betas objected to the arch-villain’s summary beheading, with her sword, of a lackey who had offended her. Let her do it, I advised. Evil should shock. And she is truly demonic, as well as an amazing ballet dancer, the tragic Lucifer of this piece.

After the first chapter or two, I had a concern that Joe’s extraordinary computer mind might be complicating the plot beyond the patience of his teenage audience. He explained, gently, that he had researched the genre in depth and would bring all the threads together in due course. Now that I’m through Chapter 8, I can see this happening and withdraw my objection.

It’s been a while since I was a teenager. But a few years ago. I was in Scotland with my pre-teen granddaughter Rebecca, a devoted Harry Potter fan. We drank cocoa together in the Edinburgh cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote her first chapters, and later the whole family rode north on the Hogwarts Express. Rebecca, I have realized, would have no trouble at all with Joe’s book.


It hadn’t happened for almost a week, but this morning a woman, a friend, approached me in church and said, “Bill, do you know your purse doesn’t match your shoes?”

Usually, the kidder is a man, but carrying a woman’s shoulder purse is an equal opportunity occasion for humor. At least this morning’s humorist is someone who knows that my wife, Karen, has COPD and gets winded easily. The purse, large and bright red, is heavy, and I’m happy to relieve her of its weight so she can walk and breathe more easily.

I’ve learned not to be irritated by the comments, and have even devised a few responses: “Yes, I’m saving up to buy matching shoes,” or “Yes, but red is just my accent color.” But I do wonder sometimes about the commenters. Why did the total stranger, male, at Kroger’s last week feel impelled to make the standard remark as he wheeled his grocery cart past me? I let Captain Obvious go on without a reply.

But still I wonder. Are some people so starved for humor that they think the comment is original and funny? Early on, I occasionally replied, “Wow! You’re the first person who’s ever said that to me!” But I quickly realized that my try at sarcasm was going straight over the questioner’s head.

Women seldom make the remark, and when they do Karen occasionally replies for me: “Isn’t he a wonderful husband? Most men wouldn’t do this for their wives.”
Happy as it makes me, that comment is itself a bit sexist. I’d like to think there are countless loving husbands who would be happy to help their wives tote heavy purses. It’s the male stranger’s comment that I think most about. To be sure, it was probably just a thoughtless if tired effort at a joke. But why did he feel impelled to say it to a stranger? However, it’s not important—many worse things are said.

None of us are very good at listening to how our own words sound to others. Just recently, one of the kindest women I know asked me seriously to explain why a beloved story of her childhood is considered racist today. I tried earnestly to explain, but I’m not sure the explanation got through. I grew up on the same story, hearing it from my father who usually added a bit of scriptural exegesis to the ending with the main character’s heroic ingestion of 169 pancakes: “And then he died.” I love pop for that line, but the story as a whole no longer passes muster.

Times change. We need to change with them. And to think with respect about the feelings of those who hear our words.

I had the privilege and pleasure recently of hearing, and even meeting briefly, the poet laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith.

The first question, of course, is: How does a poet laureate (and Pulitzer Prize winner) end up in Franklin, Indiana, reading her work to an audience of 100 or so at the local public library? Ms. Smith answered the question to some extent by commenting that she likes to get away from the East Coast and urban areas to have conversations about writing in more rural areas. A library employee was a little more specific. Ms. Smith, a professor at Princeton University, had been in South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame, and then at Indiana University, where arrangements had been made for the visit to Franklin.

I have to confess that I wasn’t familiar with her work or even that she had been the national poet laureate since 2017. Once I would have known, but I’ve been largely away from poetry in recent years. So I read up, and found her work quite good. But then something happened that moved her even higher in my estimation. As she began her program, I realized she was reading poems that I had dipped into on Google, and that I recognized instantly. Not only that, but in a sense I knew them and could anticipate what was coming. Her words were, in short, memorable—and one can’t say that of every poet, even some well-known ones.

She explained this a little when she discussed her working methods. She reads her work over carefully, chooses her words with care, and replaces language that might deter or bore a reader. In short, a highly professional writer who does the hard work this entails.

She is also a friendly person, who listens and responds graciously to questions. I think she must also be a fine teacher. Her students at Princeton are fortunate. And so were we in our small-town, midwestern library.

Boy, was I proud of myself!

I’d accumulated a bunch of Kroger paper coupons and decided to actually use them. Made up a grocery list, showing that I could save more than $12. Went through the store, shopping wisely.

At the checkout, the cashier carefully noted my coupons, but observed that I couldn’t use the one for Dole pineapple, unless I had two cans. I was about to give up when the woman behind me, in a motorized chair, cried, “No. Make them go get a second can!” The cashier sent a lackey off to do just that, while I waited. The lackey came back with the wrong brand, and the cashier sent her back. By this time the lady in the chair had gotten tired of waiting and gone to another checkout. But eventually the lackey got the right brand. I finished and rolled off, quite proud of myself, to the pharmacy.

There I crowed to a friendly clerk about my success. “Enjoy it while you can,” she said. “They’re about to phase out paper coupons, and go to electronic ones that you download on your phone.”

Wotthehell, it was a victory, however brief. Now, how do I get my electronic coupons?

Years ago, I used to present journalism students with an article (from the New York Times Magazine) titled “I Never Read a Newspaper—And You Shouldn’t Either.” I was trying to be provocative and get students to question what they were doing as journalists.

I thought of this several days ago when Ezra Klein, a founding editor of the Vox news and opinion website, suggested in an appearance on PBS Evening News, that journalists should stop covering Trump rallies since they’re essentially old news and full of falsehoods. Vox which went on line in April, 2014, is on the liberal end of the news spectrum and Klein is a former Washington Post blogger and columnist.

He raises an interesting point. Why indeed should journalists cover Trump rallies, highlight his tweets, and generally act as though anything a president says or does is news? His most recent rally, in Montana, I believe, was certainly a pastiche of old news, notably attacks on Hillary Clinton with the audience shouting, “Lock her up!” This is certainly “news” of the most ancient sort. It belongs, if anywhere, in the “so-many-years-ago-today” column.

(Trump also thumped along with his tired line against Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” and must have been gratified to see her respond angrily. So far as I know, Hillary never responds publically.)

There is an argument that journalists still need to let people know what their president is saying, however old, boring, or inane. But this surely could be done briefly, without film.

The point of my old NYT article was that people should think for themselves and ignore blather in the news media. It had a lovely quote from Robert Frost, who claimed never to read the papers. “If anything important happens,” he said, “somebody will tell me.”

A recent post cried the blues a bit about network and even PBS news coverage. It’s time today to applaud some amazing news reporting by Jane Ferguson, a PBS foreign correspondent affiliated with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.

Ferguson has been reporting from inside Yemen, with a three–part series airing on PBS this week. Anchor Judy Woodruff also interviewed her about her work.  “Inside Yemen” does not sufficiently describe what Ferguson did. Rebel-held areas of Yemen, under heavy bombardment by a Saudi coalition with U.S. weapons, are basically off limits to journalists. Ferguson had to talk her way in, while disguised as a Muslim woman wearing a full burkha. (How she got camera coverage remains unexplained.)

The first PBS segment portrayed starvation among Yemeni children, with horrifying pictures of the nearly dead. The Saudi coalition blockades the area refusing, or delaying for long periods, the entry of food or humanitarian supplies. Ferguson had the whole story, graphically. In her interview, Judy Woodruff’s deep respect for this intrepid journalist was clear.

The second segment showed the destruction not only of homes but of hospitals and other facilities by coalition aircraft using bombs manufactured in the U.S. Judy filmed not just the damage, but also the U.S. manufacturer’s labels on some unexploded bombs. A third segment is due on PBS before the end of this week.

This is not Ferguson’s first essay in this kind of personally dangerous reporting, carried out from her base in Beirut. In 2017, she was in the South Sudan, again filming a human disaster created by war. She commented, on the PBS website, “It’s incredibly important to go to the swamps and talk to the people directly affected—who are living this nightmare—because the world needs to know that conflict is driving famine today. This is a man-made disaster, and therefore the solution needs to be to end the war.”

As a former journalist and journalism teacher I commend Ferguson’s good work. I’d also recommend it to our policymakers who have placed us in league with the coalition, which is using American weapons to bomb civilians from their homes and to destroy hospitals and other sources of humanitarian aid.

At the risk of appearing to be Captain Obvious, I set out this week to compare the coverage of the NBC and PBS evening news, on what looked like a fairly typical day.

Part of this was as a gift to my sister Ann, who was feeling dispirited (as who isn’t?) about the news. And I also wanted to do it for an old newspaper friend in California.

Had it been a day later, I would have run into the Kennedy Supreme Court resignation, which swallowed everything. But on the night I chose, news was fairly light and focused on the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Trump travel ban.

Of course the big difference in the two newscasts is time allotted. PBS gives nearly an hour to its program, while NBC after commercials gives less than half that. But even so, both newscasts covered at least briefly what, as a recovering journalist, I would consider the main spot-news items of the day. Besides the travel ban, these included the ongoing separation of parents and children at the Mexican border, weather, and the Pawnee wildfire in California. NBC added a Waco hospital explosion, an on-line car-sales scam, a challenge to the transportation secretary, a football player’s suicide due to brain disease, and belated presentation of a 1945 medal of honor. PBS covered the upcoming House immigration vote, new Syrian refugees, a Turkish crackdown on dissidents, protests in Iran, Trump’s berating of Harley-Davidson for its move abroad, and a significant study showing underrepresentation of women in law enforcement.

After that, things got a bit weird on NBC with video of a man in shorts dashing across an airport runway (news?), an unexplained shot of flowing lava in Hawaii, and a three-minute “snapshot” feature on adult treehouses.

PBS went off (as it often does on the second half hour) to longer features, which on this night included immigration (5 minutes), a tourist boom on the Chinese-North Korean border (7 minutes), a well-done cultural analysis of the burgeoning protests around the country (14 minutes), and saving Easter Island from climate change (11 minutes). This last, strange as it may sound, was flat-out fascinating with on-the-spot-reportage by the incomparable (IMHO) Jeff Brown.

So what emerges? NBC, by necessity in its timeframe, does snippets geared to eye-stopping video that grabs the viewer bent on sensation. Then it’s off to a ton of medical and other ads. PBS, with its extra time, is slower and (let’s face it) sometimes duller. I can watch only so many interviews with congresspeople. (On the other hand, Marcia Coyle, a law journalist, has been a godsend in unraveling all the Supreme Court news.)

So where does this get us, sis? Both programs will keep us modestly informed on headline items. Sorry I can’t do anything about the preponderance of bad news these days. NBC may leave us awash in trivia at times. PBS now and then may bore us into heading for the icebox and a good book.