A walk down the aisle

There is a long aisle at our grocery store with soda pop at one end and tea and coffee at the other, which my love and I get to after the butter and eggs and 2% milk. We come to the beverage aisle and she selects the coffee, dark ground, with names like Swan Lake and Machiavelli. I notice the can of Maxwell House percolator grind and think of Mother and Dad. And there between the coffee and the soda pop is an extensive collection of waters.

In St. Paul, where we live, water comes out of the tap. You pay for it, of course, but the price per serving is miniscule compared to the serious money you shell out for fruit-flavored water, sparkling, caffeinated, antioxidant, and even hydrogenated. One water, enhanced with green tea and ginger, promises to create thermogenesis to increase metabolism and burn body fat.

It’s interesting to walk through an enormous grocery store on the evening of a day when I’ve been reading about the end of World War II, when most of the world except for America was badly damaged and people in Europe and Asia were hungry, many on the verge of starvation. People were eating rodents, crows, dogs, scavenging in the ruins for edible garbage. If you wanted good food, you had to pawn the silverware and go to a black market. This happened within the lifetime of some of us.

No wonder my parents in 1947 bought themselves an acre of land and built a house on it, keeping half an acre for garden, and every summer, we went through a frenzy of canning to fill the basement shelves with jars of corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, squash, and jams and jellies. Six children under their roof and we never went hungry.

My generation, which came of age in the 1950s, was the beginning of teenagerness: we adopted our own mode of dress, our own music, our standard of coolness, which was based on alienation from the previous generation. Adolescence, as we defined it, would not have been tolerated in a time of hardship and scarcity, but we reveled in self-consciousness. Some of us maintained immaturity right up to retirement. We called it The Arts but really it was adolescence.

And now we discover that old age is utterly anonymous. Past 70, we’re all marching into the swamp and it’s the same swamp for everyone. Bombs are falling around us, friends are struck down, eventually we will be, too. We live day to day, the huddled masses of the aged and infirm, watching our successors march on ahead.

What bothers me is that we’re cutting music and drama in the public schools to pay for Gramma to get an MRI if she has a headache and pay for Viagra at $10 per pill to give men in nursing homes to keep them from rolling out of bed at night. Why? Because we old-timers vote and children don’t.

The old need to look after the young and honor the future. I run into people who retired on lovely pensions at 62 and now enjoy making bad art and writing stuff nobody wants to read, an enormous bulge of aging boomers squeezing through the pension pipeline, their expensive health care paid for by semi-literate 30-year-olds penalized by lousy schools where languages were dropped and tests dumbed down and class size rose past 30 and 35, who are now forced to support a growing population of seashell collectors and bad poets and people making videos of the Grand Canyon. After 27 years as Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the Associated Federation of Organizations, you now get to be a teenager again.

That is what I think of as I look at the $6 can of hydrogenated citrus-flavored organic zero-calorie caffeinated water guaranteed to whip up your metabolism and make you skinny and youthful again. And so I don’t buy it. I go home and, out of solidarity with my ancestors who endured hardship of many kinds, I put a glass under the tap and fill it with water. No ice, no lemon, no sparkle. When you can appreciate a glass of pure water, you’ve touched base with reality. You are back in 1950, on Grandma’s back step, pushing the pump handle down, holding your tin cup under the spout. The chickens cluster around for their share and the barn cats. Some places in the world know terrible drought, but not us. Praise God for His grace and goodness.

 


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

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.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

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.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for September 23, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 23, 2018

It’s the birthday of the dramatic poet Euripides, whose contemporaries made fun of him for enjoying solitude and writing in a large, 10-chambered cave now known as the Cave of Euripides.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 22, 2018

It was on this day in 1888 that the first issue of National Geographic was published. Photographs were included later as a way to fill extra pages.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of prolific horror writer Stephen King (Portland, Maine, 1947), who said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald called This Side of Paradise.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

On this day in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. 🙂

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

Today is the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935), author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Curious George creator H. A. Rey, who escaped Paris on a pair of bicycles with wife and collaborator Margret Rey just before the Nazi invasion in June 1940.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands.

Read More
Writing

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

Read More

A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

Read More

Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

Read More

My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

Read More

My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

Read More

An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

Read More

Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message