College Days

College is a time in your life when you can be gloriously ridiculously full of yourself and get away with it, a luxury once reserved for the aristocracy but, in America, extended to the child of a carpenter and postal worker, namely me. I was a middle-class kid from the West River Road where late at night fireflies sparkled in the field behind the dark houses and I sat on our rich green lawn and stared at the blinking red light on a distant water tower and tried to imagine a larger life though it seemed presumptuous and that fall I found it, ten miles south of us, at the University of Minnesota. I had been a B student at Anoka High School but I was encouraged by some tireless encouragers, my teachers Helen Story, Lois Melby, Helen Fleischman, Katherine Hattendorf, children of the Depression who grew up in farm families and for them teaching was a shining ideal and also the path out of a hard life they knew too well, the life of serfs. Miss Hattendorf grew up on a farm in Iowa; her German parents sent her and her sisters to board with a family in town so they could attend high school. When she was about to leave for the University of Chicago and it came time to say goodbye and get in the car and go to the train, she looked at her mother standing at the kitchen sink—“I wanted to hug her, but I couldn’t do it. She was a stranger to me. They wanted me and my sisters to get a good education and they made big sacrifices and that was one of them: they didn’t know us anymore and we didn’t know them.” She was sure I could be a writer and to show her faith in me, she paid me $20 to write her obituary, though she was in pretty good health.

I secretly imagined getting published in The New Yorker though of course I couldn’t tell anybody that. I had imagined it since junior high school. I still have the first copy I bought, 35 cents, with E.B. White in it, John Cheever, and A.J. Liebling, my hero. A.J. Liebling knocked me out, and he still does. He used to sit up in his office at the magazine and look down 43rd and see the Hotel Dixie and the Paramount Building, home of the Paramount Theater. To the Paramount, he had gone as a young reporter to interview the Hollywood femme fatale Pola Negri, whom he had fallen in love with when he saw her in a German silent film, “Passion,” in Hanover, New Hampshire, when he was about to be kicked out of Dartmouth for cutting chapel. Liebling interviewed her as she lay in a white peignoir on a white chaise longue like a crumpled gardenia petal and said, of Rudolph Valentino, “He was the only man I evair luffed. But I am fated always to be unhappy in luff. Because I expect so mawch.” And the Hotel Dixie was the home of Liebling’s friend, Colonel John R. Stingo, the horseracing columnist for the National Enquirer. Colonel Stingo said, “I sit up there in my room at the Dixie, working away on my column. I finish, and it is perhaps one o’clock. Up there in my retreat, I feel the city calling to me. It winks at me with its myriad eyes, and I go out and get stiff as a board. I seek out companionship, and if I do not find friends, I make them. A wonderful, grand old Babylon.”That summer after high school, I worked as a dishwasher at the Evangeline Hotel for Women in downtown Minneapolis, a skinny kid with glasses in a white apron, lugging the racks of steaming hot plates off the conveyer, chipping the black crusts of food off the bottoms of the cooking pots. Dishwashing can bring out the romantic in a man. On a hot summer day, you come out of the steam and heat of the scullery and the beauty of the world overwhelms you and you feel cool and comfortable for the rest of the day. I walked onto campus for the first day of classes and strolled up the mall to Northrop Auditorium and gazed up at its great pillars and the Jeffersonian inscription on the facade above, founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding, dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth, devoted to the instruction of youth and the welfare of the state. Along the mall, a stately parade of utilitarian brick buildings with pillars pasted to their fronts, a river of youth flowing under the canopy of majestic elms, lost freshmen lolling on the steps studying campus maps and planning their route from one class to the next, and Africans and Indians and Pakistanis and Koreans come to study plant agronomy and engineering, Africans blacker than midnight who spoke with British accents like John Gielgud’s, black Africans speaking beautiful French (I turned and followed them, eavesdropping, so astonishing this was to hear), bearded Sikhs in turbans, women in saris with red dots painted on their foreheads, Korean War vets in fatigues and GI sunglasses, old bearded lefties in turtlenecks clutching their I. F. Stone Weekly and The Realist, cigarette-smoking women playing the role of beat princess or troubled intellect or Audrey Hepburn heroine, cool people who might possibly have been poets, anxious bookish people en route to serious encounters with history and literature. Ambition everywhere you looked, electrical currents jazzing the air. I walked over to Dinkytown to buy my books at Perrine’s, down the street from Al’s Breakfast Nook, near Vescio’s Italian restaurant and a rats’ nest of a bookstore called Heddon’s whose snowy-haired proprietor, after pondering a moment, could reach into the third orange crate from the bottom and pull out the very book you asked for, and Virg ‘N’ Don’s Grocery and a coin laundry called The Tub, and McCosh’s Bookstore with the sweet-faced bearded anarchist and bibliomaniac McCosh, Gray’s Drugstore lunch counter (a grilled cheese sandwich, chili, and a vanilla shake, please) and a fine little coffeehouse called the Ten O’Clock Scholar where a beaky kid with brushy hair played a battered guitar and sang “O Fair and Tender Ladies” and It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, Where the dangers are many and the pleasures are few. The stage was in front, before the big double plate-glass window, and sometimes a passerby stopped on the sidewalk, peered in the window, into the dark room, and then realized he was part of a show and fled.

I walked over to Folwell Hall, home of the English Department and the divine Miss Sarah Youngblood and craggy old Huntington Brown and Samuel Monk the 18th Century man and Toni McNaron who propounded Milton and Archibald Leyasmeyer the Chaucerian and other noble and learned friends of literature, and I felt grateful that this institution had opened its doors to a dreamer like me who had no clear vocation whatsoever. I was operating on a wistful urge to sit in libraries and be a writer and that was all. I wasn’t like the anxious bookish people who seemed to be proceeding on a well-plotted course, boys climbing the slopes toward law school, smart girls in chemistry lab who would march on to distinction developing polymers. Myself, I just hoped to be lucky.

I paid $71 for a quarter’s tuition and another $10 or so for my books, a political science text, a volume of Horace and a Latin dictionary, and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style for my composition course—and notebooks with the university seal on the cover (Omnibus Artibus, Commune Vinculum) and I took a seat in the long reading room in Walter Library among men and women bent to the hard work of scholarship, folks for whom attending college was not an assumed privilege. The vets on the GI Bill and the African and Asian exchange students and the ones who were the first in their family to attend college, whose parents’ own hopes had been deferred by the Depression and the War—these students approached the U with a great chins-up pencils-sharpened sense of purpose. They sat at the long oak library tables, heads bowed, rows and rows of them, reading, reading, reading—sons of garage mechanics on their way to medical school, daughters of dairy farmers out to become professors of Romance languages—a great American migration as inspiring as anything that took place on the Oregon Trail. These pioneers craved a life in which beauty and delight and intellectual challenge are staples; they wanted to travel to farflung places, read novels, go to the theater, be smart about the world and not reflexively pessimistic like their parents. The craving for experience was powerful. Love and adventure and interesting work—a great many of us, fearing the regimentation of corporate life, would head for the burgeoning non-profit world. Such a purposeful bunch—who looked like me, were dressed like me, and like me had very little money—who plowed through the texts and took notes and shushed up the goofballs in their midst. Boys and girls who came to the library to sit and giggle were glared at and told to be still—this never happened in high school! These were people with a sense of vocation. It was a Thomas Hart Benton mural come to life—”The Children of the Great Plains Claiming Their Birthright At Last.” Their once-in-a-lifetime chance to realize their God-given talent, as scholars of medieval painting or operas or the breeding rituals of the Arctic ptarmigan. No guarantee of success, or even of gainful employment. Pure free enterprise.

My Latin teacher, Margaret Forbes, was an auntly woman, cheery and kind, who ran us through daily translations and sniped at us with questions about the anticipatory subjunctive—subjunctive denotes an act that is expected—Expectabum dum frater redirect—I was waiting for my brother to return—and we responded to her aequo animo—without anxiety, as she lay open the folded language—patefacio, patefacere, patefeci, patefactumO pace in perpetuum, Margareta, felicitas aeternas! Richard Cody taught composition, a slender Englishman sitting at a table on a raised platform, lecturing drily on the art of the essay, which he described as a 440-yard dash through natural obstacles, over rough terrain, an intellectual exercise also meant to be esthetically elegant. We were Minnesota kids striving to imitate William Hazlitt, Joseph Addison, George Orwell, E. B. White, and Norman Mailer. Once Mr. Cody called on me to come forward and read the first page of my essay on manure spreading, one of my jobs on Uncle Jim’s farm—a humorous essay, supposedly—and I jumped up to do it and fainted dead away—fell across a row of empty chairs and crashed to the floor and lay there. “Are you all right?” a girl asked under her breath. I got up and Mr. Cody called on someone else. We were all pretty cool back then. Asher Christiansen taught American Government, an elegant little man in dark slacks and gray blazer, bushy eyebrows, moustache, smoking his pipe—half the class smoked too, and I came to associate intellectual seriousness with bad air—propounding his grand theme, that the Constitution was a natural force for civilization, its checks and balances serving to dampen the fires of inner-directed ideologues and bring them into a respectful relationship to their antagonists and attend to the serious business of government. After class, some students formed another smaller class that followed Professor Christiansen out the door and stood in the alley behind Nicholson Hall for a few minutes, a gaggle of fifteen or twenty that dwindled as he headed down the Mall to his office in Ford Hall, arriving there with four or five of us still hanging on. I was a student in the last class he taught. In January I saw the front-page story in the Daily: Professor Christiansen had felt ill during lunch at the faculty club and went to a quiet room to lie down and died there of a heart attack. The story said he grew up in Little Falls, graduated from the U, where he taught from 1936 on, with guest stints in Wales, Germany, and Argentina, where he lectured in Spanish. He was 57 years old, married, no children. Just us students.

Dad had made it clear that he couldn’t contribute to pay for my education, which I hadn’t asked him to and I was relieved not to have to consider an offer. A nice clean break. I got a job working the 6 to 10 a.m. shift in the big parking lot on the river flats for $1.48 an hour. Nine hundred cars, and it filled up by 7:30 so there you were with a couple hours of paid study time. You learned to ignore your fellow attendant who liked to tell about students he had seen having sex in parked cars and you applied yourself to the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers.

I got a job at the student radio station, WMMR, in October and a tall good-looking guy named Barry Halper showed me how to piece together a newscast from the Associated Press teletype. They needed someone to do the 12:15 newscast. “Today?” I said. “Today,” he said. He showed me how to switch on the microphone, read the VU meter, adjust the headphone volume, showed me the cough switch, and an hour later I sat down in a tiny room with green acoustic-tile walls at a table covered with green felt and switched on the mike and a red bulb lit up and I read the news under a gooseneck lamp, one eye on the big clock on the wall in front of my face. I was nervous of course, but it was a delicious nervousness. I felt sequestered, safe in the studio, a little fortress. I did the newscast and said, “That’s the news, reported by Garrison Keillor. This is WMMR, from studios in Coffman Memorial Union, broadcasting at 730 kilocycles.” And pressed a Play button and the tape deck clunked and a recorded voice talked about Campus Pizza and I got up and the next announcer slipped in and played something by Johnny Mathis and I walked out to the hall and Barry Halper nodded at me. “That was not bad,” he said.

An egalitarian spirit prevailed at the U that truly was noble. There was no rank, no hazing, no freshman beanies, we were all in the same boat. You were Mr. Keillor to your professor and he was Mr. Brown to you. You looked him in the eye. You said, “I don’t get this” and he explained it to you. That was his job. Yours was to pay attention. Money was no social asset whatsoever and if you went around in expensive clothes you were regarded with pity or scorn. A few goofball freshmen showed up in brand new suits for fall classes and they stood out in the crowd as if they wore red rubber noses and fright wigs. Everybody from the President to the deans and the faculty had their home addresses and phone numbers listed in the University directory, and if you were brave enough, you could ring up Dean McDiarmid or Vice President Willey and tell him your troubles. I did not but the phone numbers were there and I suppose somebody did. On my slender parking lot wages I was able to buy a season ticket to the concerts in Northrup and I saw Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, Andrés Segovia, the Royal Danish Ballet doing a Balanchine program, the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, the Cleveland Orchestra, Glenn Gould—you could get a balcony seat for $1.50, about an hour’s wage. I couldn’t afford to see the Metropolitan Opera on their annual tour but one evening I did look up at a window on the side of Northrup and see a tall slender dark-haired woman standing naked in front of a full-length mirror for a whole minute, studying herself. A wardrobe lady sat nearby, smoking, reading a newspaper. The dark-haired woman turned, facing me, her hands on hips, one leg extended, looking over her shoulder at her rump, her delicate bush and maroon nipples, like a painting, nude dancer studying herself.

Robert Frost came to campus soon after Kennedy’s speech and drew a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Northrup Auditorium, the great stooped white-maned old bear reciting by heart “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the crowd hushed in the cathedral of poetry—“For Once, Then, Something” and “The Oven Bird” and “Fire and Ice” and the one about the lover’s quarrel with the world—that soft lyrical cranky uncle voice beloved since junior high, a godlike presence in our midst, and afterward a hundred of us acolytes gathered at the back door to view the great man up close. I was proud of him for drawing that huge crowd and performing so well. He eased his old body down the stairs, our grand paterfamilias, and mingled with us, chatted, answered a few questions—I remember clearly, nobody asked for his autograph—and then he climbed into a black Chrysler and was taken off to lunch with the faculty. But we students were as important as anybody else and weren’t held behind ropes or shushed. That was how it was at the U. The field was wide open. At the Minnesota Daily and its literary arm, The Ivory Tower, you submitted your stuff and back came a polite note, “Sorry,” and that week they printed George Amabile’s poems instead of yours, but you sent more and of that second batch the editor accepted two and the next month they appeared, big glutinous symbolist things about owls on moonless nights flying to Arabia, all in lowercase, and you snatched ten copies out of a paper box and took them home to save to show your grandchildren you once were a writer. The publications weren’t in the grip of a gang, they were open to walk-ons.

I hung around the Daily offices, free of the petty miseries of high school, that small fixed universe. The University was freedom. A friend of mine dropped out sophomore year and married his girlfriend and they bought a little yellow rambler in Coon Rapids, the down payment a gift from her parents. He was a warehouse clerk and his wife got pregnant and woke up in a foul mood every morning and he went off to eight hours of an automaton job. What a waste of a perfectly good life. Women were the great tamers; they took you in hand and trained you to accept the leaden social life and waxen solemnity of marriage and instead of bumming around Europe you’d be spending two weeks with her parents at the lake. Women put their arms around you and cried that they loved you and wanted to make you happy and bwanngggg a trapdoor popped open and you dropped down the chute into a job you despised and a frazzled marriage in a crackerjack house with a mortgage as big as Montana—I intended to escape that. I longed for my flesh to touch someone else’s flesh but I remained chaste. I sat in clouds of cigarette smoke in a classroom smelling of linseed-oiled floors and listened to James Wright lecture on Dickens and gazed at the lovely girls in horn-rim glasses. I liked strolling around campus at night with Gail who wrote for the paper or my classmate Mary, put my arm around her waist and hooked my little finger in her belt loop and she with her arm around the back of me, hooked together, talking about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, arms riding across each other’s butts, our hips moving in meter, which, we two being different heights, came out in 9/7 time, like an old Swedish step dance, and I would maybe recite Housman’s poem about being 20—“And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow”—and wind up back at Murphy Hall and the Daily office.

For winter quarter, I got the 5 a.m. shift at a ten-acre gravel parking lot on the West Bank, overlooking the Mississippi. I was turning into a night owl, always up past midnight, and the alarm clock went off at 4 and I lay in the warm trench of my bed, reviewing my options, preferring sleep, longed for it, nodded off, which shocked me into wakefulness and I rolled out and drove to town through the snowy world and parked beside the parking lot shack and hiked to the far end of the lot, flashlight in hand, like a sheep shearer waiting for the herd to come piling through the gate. The lot sloped down to the edge of the bluff and I looked down on Bohemian Flats, a ragtag village on the riverbank. Old frame houses that got flooded out every spring, where old Swedes and Bohunks lived a subsistence life in the middle of the Twin Cities. Smoke rose from their chimneys. One of the other parking attendants said there was a whorehouse down there. “Ten bucks a shot,” he said. “Indian women.“ I got good at parking. The cars came in a rush, starting at 6:30. Three ticket sellers stood in the street, and the flagman stood at the top of the lot and directed the flow to where I was conducting them into their spots, straight lines, double rows. No painted lines on the gravel, I did it all by eye.

I had to direct each car with strong hand signals into its correct space, the Leonard Bernstein of the automobile, and discourage the tendency to freelance and veer off toward a more convenient place. Every morning there were three or four pioneers who wanted to start their own rows. You had to yell to the flagman to hold the traffic and then you ran over toward the miscreant’s car and yelled “Your car will be towed in ten minutes.” The mention of towing got their attention, but you had to make it sound real. “That’s a twenty-five-dollar fine.” Usually that was enough to get them to move the car. If they hesitated, I said, “Plus twenty-five for the impound lot. It’s up to you.” I had no idea who to call to come tow a car or what they would say, I just did what other attendants said to do, and it worked. Creative parking couldn’t be allowed, chaos would result, cars skewed everywhere, blocking other cars, holding up traffic, people late, angry, honking—it was my responsibility to make the grid system work. For the common good. To be direct. Exercise authority. No, sir. Not there. Over here. Right here. Yes. Here. Your individualists and comedians would test the limits and if you gave them an inch, anarchy would ensue, cars going every which way like confused buffalo. Be firm. Make that bozo back up six inches. Straighten that line. Thank you. If you accept that variance, the line will buckle. If you do your job right, the lot fills to capacity in half an hour, you put up the full sign and huddle in the shack, the electric heater blazing away, and you take up with Natasha and Prince Andrei and War and Peace for Mr. Milgrom’s humanities class until 9 a.m. when the shift ends and you leg it over the Washington Avenue bridge to the East Bank. A cup of vending machine coffee and a cheese danish and off to class.

In the winter, we packed into Williams Arena to cheer the hockey team against our deadly rival, the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. Blood lust in the air. Our Gophers were all Minnesota boys and the Sioux were all Canucks, paid thugs, big bruisers, mercenaries, and when a Sioux got ridden into the boards, we cheered from the bottom of our hearts. I dated a quiet girl, a church organist, and at hockey games she screeched and booed like a true peasant. I wrote a poem about hockey and took it to a writers’ club meeting at Professor Hage’s house and the poet James Wright said something encouraging about it and my face burned with pleasure. I can still picture it in my mind, where I was sitting, where he sat, and I still feel my face getting warm.

That spring the Mississippi River rose and there were urgent flood warnings on the radio. One afternoon I put on warm clothes and took the bus to St. Paul and crossed the Wabasha Bridge to the West Side where people were at work filling sandbags to bolster the dikes to save the low-lying houses. It was foggy, and then it began to rain. An army of hundreds of volunteers hard at work, men and women, drawn up in assembly lines, holding the sacks and filling them and passing them in a chain to the dike. It got dark. Nobody left. The Red Cross brought around sandwiches and coffee. We rested and went back to work. Trucks brought in more sand and bags. A couple of front loaders worked at anchoring the dikes with earthen banks. I worked until after midnight and lay down in the back of a truck under a tarp and slept until daybreak and got up stiff and cold and they brought us more sandwiches and coffee and I got back in the gang and worked until noon. I stayed because everyone else stayed. I sort of collapsed in the afternoon and was going to go home but slept a couple hours on a tarp in somebody’s front yard and when I woke up, there was water in the street, people wading through it, some men with muddy overalls, pitched emotion in the air, though nobody said much. We had put so much into beating back the flood, and we kept working—shovel, fill, tie, and pass, shovel, fill, tie, and pass—and felt privileged to be there doing it. I could hear the river boiling by and slabs of ice heaved up on the dike and National Guardsmen patrolling and when people couldn’t stand up any longer, they sat down and ate baloney sandwiches and drank coffee. And got back up.

I went home in the morning. I sat on the bed and cried. For the relief of getting out of those mud-crusted clothes and standing under a hot shower, but also for what I’d seen, the spirit of all those workers caught up in the job of saving their neighbors’ houses. Forget all the jabber and gossip, all the theoretical balderdash and horsefeathers, here is reality: the river rises up in its power and majesty, and the people rise up in theirs, and while one can do only so much, you must do that much, and we did. We saved several blocks of homes. Nobody thanked us. It didn’t matter. It was an experience.

The University was a monument to the Jeffersonian faith in the power of learning and in the ability of all people to recognize and embrace excellence, a grand old American notion. To offer Jussi Bjoerling and Arthur Rubinstein to 18-year-old kids at prices they can afford is an astonishment. Utterly. To witness such grandeur can change a person’s life. But that was the spirit of the Morrill Act of 1862 that granted to the states a tract of land in proportion to their population for the endowment of a state university to teach the classic curriculum as well as courses relating to agriculture and industry, open to qualified students regardless of financial means. I stuck around at WMMR and did the noon newscast for six months, five days a week, and then in May was told that the station had been off the air for at least that long. Doggone it. Our engineer, a brilliant young man, had been busy building a state-of-the-art control room and hadn’t had time to do maintenance on the transmitter and it had burned out. I was in some anguish over having spent six months editing a newscast so I could sit in a room and read it to myself, but as Barry Halper said, “It was good experience.” And had I ever, in those six months, thought about the listeners and wondered why the cards and letters weren’t pouring in, or trickling in, or even dripping in? No. I was having too much fun. “You sound terrific,” said Barry. “You could get a job on any station in town.” He was a pal and a real positive guy. He was 20, he drove a big white convertible, he was Jewish and smart, he’d been to LA and Las Vegas and met Jack Benny and Shelley Berman. If he’d asked me to, I would’ve shined his shoes.

I was a serious young man and did not go to parties at the U except one in the spring of my sophomore year at somebody’s parents’ house in Kenwood, a tony neighborhood in Minneapolis, where a mob of students was drinking something called Purple Death out of a washtub in the kitchen. Fortified with this, people started spouting off their big opinions about Kennedy and Hemingway and Ornette Coleman and some of us got into a contest to see who knew more dirty limericks. There was the one about the young man from Buckingham and the young man from St. Paul whose cock was exceedingly small and the Bishop of Chichester and the sailor named Tex who avoided premarital sex and the young woman of Edina and her vagina.

The base of Purple Death was grape Kool-Aid, plus whatever the guests had brought. It was a potluck cocktail: Old Buzzard Breath bourbon, crème de banana, licorice schnapps, vodka, anything would do, and after drinking for a while and telling dirty jokes, some of us headed over to Cedar Lake to go skinny-dipping, and we stripped off our clothes, but it wasn’t the erotic thrill it should’ve been, not for me anyway: I could feel the hangover mounting up behind my forehead, a truly monumental one, with shades of surrealism—I remember naked women and I also remember the dark angel of projectile vomiting—and in the morning I awoke with a taste of what mental illness might be like, a sort of vacancy with dark shadows. And I was glad to be alone.

As U of M students we walked around with a fine chip on our shoulder toward eastern finishing schools like Yale and Harvard where children of privilege slept until noon after a night of inebriation, were brought cucumber sandwiches by a porter, sashayed off to their 3 p.m. music appreciation class, and then played squash until dinner. Oxford and Cambridge were held in even greater contempt: dandruffy men quivering with borrowed sensibility drinking sherry and propounding fabulous foolishness with great certainty. You walk around with a brown bag lunch and a few bucks in your pocket, trying to scrape together next quarter’s tuition, and a little class resentment is good for you, a balm and a prod both. I envied cool people, good tennis players, opera singers, sandy-haired rich guys who looked princely even in ratty old clothes, all Frenchmen, men with lovely girlfriends, guitarists, but the U was the antidote to envy. So many cool people seem on closer examination to be trapped in a set of mannerisms that are not so interesting and lead nowhere, whereas the U appealed to your curiosity and drew you into scholarship, which took you through doors you hadn’t known existed. In one smoky classroom after another, sitting elbow to elbow at little arm desks, you felt illuminated, there was a quickening almost like drunkenness, a feeling that you and the professor were conspiring in a noble enterprise that would last you to the end of your days. I learned how to plant myself in a library chair and open the books and take notes in a yellow legal pad. Having a good ear for multiple-choice tests had gotten me through high school (the correct answer, two-thirds of the time, was C) but now I needed to actually do the work. I soldiered through and learned how to write profoundly at great speed late at night about books I barely understood.

American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is true revolution. When I graduated from Anoka High School, I believed that my chances would be as good as anybody else’s, and the good people of Minnesota did not let me down. I got my chance and right there is where a Democrat is made—a kid from Anoka sits in a parking lot shack on Fourth Street SE where, earning $1.48 an hour, he translates Horace for Mrs. Forbes—whose standards are high—as birds sit scritching on the telephone wire and a fly buzzes at the window. A bright fall day and he has no money to speak of and no clear plan for the future but he has teachers who engage him with gravity and fervor and that’s enough. That was the true spirit of the University, the spirit of professors who loved their work. That was the heart and soul of the place, not the athletic teams, not the architecture. The University was Mary Malcolm, a native of Worthington, who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and came back to teach music theory for forty-three years. She had perfect pitch and could write down on paper anything you could hum or plunk on the piano. It was Izaak M. Kolthoff, a Dutch chemist who guided Jewish scientists out of Germany in the Thirties and worked on the crucial war project of creating synthetic rubber and became a peacenik in the Fifties. It was Marcia Edwards, a chain-smoking authority on adolescent psychology and a fanatical Gopher sports fan who went to angelic lengths to help her students, even lending them money, and who turned down the offer to become dean of the College of Education because she didn’t want the hassle, especially the foofaraw of being the first woman dean. It was Bill Marchand who taught Shakespeare to kids majoring in animal husbandry and horticulture. It was Nils Hasselmo who came from Sweden to study the Swedish emigrants and got his doctorate and became chair of the Scandinavian Languages Department and eventually President of the U. And it was Margaret Forbes who could make you feel that a few lines of Horace held the key to everything noble. And if you start to feel ennobled, you lose interest in how you are perceived by other people. You walk into the library and that Niagara of scholarship holds you in its sway, the deluge and glory of learning, and you begin to see where work and play become one. And imagine working at something you love. And that was how the University of Minnesota gave me my life.

Wobegon Virus

Coming September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are both available for preorder now, and an audiobook will be available for presale in the coming months.

In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

Read more about the book and pre-order your copy >>>


Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

It’s waiting for my wife to return from visiting relatives in Connecticut. She’s the one who Puts Things Together in this family. She has smaller fingers and finer digital skills, being a violinist, and unlike me, she reads directions. She assembles parts into a coherent whole. I am a writer and the problem of assembly puts me into a subjunctive mood and I might have solved it had I taken my time but what I assemble is a non sequitur and somewhere a child is weeping bitterly. So I wait for her to come home.

A couple weeks ago, a workman came to our apartment backdoor and asked me (I think) something about air conditioning. I believe he is Polish and some of his English sounded Polish to me so I notified my wife and he spoke to her and she pointed to a panel in the ceiling over the washer and dryer, and there it was, a condenser or whatever it’s called. I come from simple rural people; we worked in the sun and after a day of that, the shade was good enough, we didn’t require AC.

I used to resent competent people and now I am married to one. I was an English major in college and looked down on the engineering students in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors, and now we live in a digital world they designed and I can’t figure out how to make my iPhone deZoom after it has enlarged itself. I need to ask my wife, the one who reads directions.

A couple years ago, I couldn’t start my car one morning and had to call a tow truck. Back in the 20th century, you’d see a neighbor pull out of his driveway and wave to him and he’d get out jumper cables and start you up, but these days your neighbor is very likely an English major who wanted to be a writer but instead became an Executive Vice President for Branding and Inclusivity, which is a different branch of fiction, and if I wave at him, he’ll pretend not to see me. My dad, up to the mid-Sixties or so, was able to take his cars apart and do repairs. The neighbor guy and I are of a generation that Does Not Understand How Engines Work. So the tow truck started me up and I drove to a shop where the mechanic discovered that a malfunctioning lock on the trunk was draining my battery. Amazing. It’s like a boil on your rear end is the cause of your migraine. But he fixed it. This sort of competence is inspiring to me. And we are surrounded by it. If ever you should call the EMTs at 911, you’ll be swarmed by great competence.

Meanwhile, there is a cultural movement among us that argues that our world is systemically oppressive and corrupt, the institutions and laws, epistemology, mindsets, literature, politics, religion, cheeseburgers, cole slaw, rotted through and through by elitist masculine Western Eurocentric misogynistic homicidal hierarchical colonialist biases, and there is no such thing as commonality, community, competence, comedy, all of which are intrinsically unequal and tools of oppression, and I, as an oppressor, have internalized my dominance, accepting it as something earned, not inherited.

One could call this movement fascistic but it doesn’t really matter because I am 78 and the movement won’t take over the country until after I am gone, and meanwhile, in the time it took me to write this, my love has assembled the chair and I sit in it and I feel so good, I write an elitist limerick, my favorite tool of oppression:

Classic, romantic, baroque,
Whether you sleep or are woke,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back
From the fact that you know you’re a joke.

One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

But thanks to the recumbent, the man in the large golf pants, we live in the Golden Age of delicious vicious columnry, the best of them being conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will whose outrage rises to great literary heights whereas old liberals like me sit and play “Honolulu Baby” on the ukulele and toss in a little tap dance. For Mr. Will, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is like Mother poisoning Dad and marrying a Mafia hitman. I turn to Mr. Will in the Washington Post and feast on lines like “this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.”

It’s a great line and I have nothing to add to it. Mr. Will is a lifelong Republican conservative and he knows in his heart that the recumbent is no more a Republican than Nancy Pelosi is a pole-vaulter and the recumbent is no more a believing Christian than he is the Dalai Lama-rama-ding-dong. It is an insane moment in the history of the Republic and it drives Mr. Will wild, but to me, it’s just a TV show and I turn it off and go sit on the shady terrace and feast on these giant blueberries grown in Peru and feel content. I toss a few of them toward the mockingbirds’ nest, hoping to lure them back, but no such luck.

I am almost 78 and America’s problems are my grandchildren’s problems, not mine, and I have been married for 25 years to a woman who thrills me and to avoid the plague we’ve spent four months in close proximity and it’s been good. I am capable of bitter sarcasm — I had a column all set to go about the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., dropping the word “colony” from its name because it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy. But I don’t care about artists’ colonies, have no interest in spending time in one, am grateful to be excluded. The higher the ark the better; I don’t want to get on board. The street carnival in Portland is not my concern, except to hope that nobody gets hurt. The Bullying that is going on over Capitalization of certain words is — how shall I say it? — Remarkable. As for racism, there is no room for it in the Christian faith where it continues to thrive.

I come from a generation that spent 57,000 American lives in a war that had no point then and has no defenders now and American cruise ships now dock at Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and folks from Omaha and Seattle eat in sidewalk cafes whose owners may have been among the guerillas who defeated us and who cares?

Madame and I have our own colony, and beyond that, each of us has a circle of pals, which the pandemic lockdown makes all the more enjoyable. Theaters are dark and concert halls, but the telephone still works and now that people are sticking close to home, the phone calls get longer and more fulfilling and launch into stories, and we don’t bother talking politics, we talk family history, which is more interesting. And if asked what we’re up to, we will talk about mockingbirds.

The birds are worried and I feel just fine

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed believe the Prez is doing a good job with the pandemic, which is good news for folks offering Florida timeshares for August and telemarketers who’ll turn your songs into No. 1 hits if you give them your credit card number. Thirty-eight percent approval means that there is a big market for agates as an investment.

It’s a dangerous world out there, don’t kid yourself. I feel for the mockingbird parents on our terrace who screech at us, warning us not to grab their fledglings. We can see them in the nest, beaks wide open, squeaking for food, just like our own daughter years ago. The parents are in high anxiety. My wife and I are liberals, we eat beef and pork, have no interest whatsoever in eating mockingbird — and I feel their pain.

Violence is part of life. Every day you get dinner or you are dinner. Fish are beautiful, like fashion models parading back and forth, and then a killer dashes in and eats one: that is a fish’s way of life. The mouse is in the cornfield, shopping for his family, and he hears a rush of wings and feels sharp back pain and suddenly he is very high in the air. Our football teams are named for killers, lions, wolverines, eagles, gators. Only two for religious figures (saints, cardinals) and one for temp workers (gophers). Will the Washington NFL team now change its name to the Sergeants and the Minnesota Vikings become the Viruses? Go to Oslo and you’ll see that the Norwegians are not the marauding warriors they were back in the ninth century when they raided and pillaged widely. They’re more into tillage now.

We liberals tried to create a safe world for our fledglings. I grew up before there were seat belts so I rode standing up in the front seat as my dad drove 75 mph across North Dakota, but my children rode in podlike car seats belted in like test pilots. They rode tricycles, wearing helmets. We banned smoking. There were warnings on everything, like kitchen knives (“Sharp: may cut skin if pressure is applied.”) and ovens (“Do not insert head when gas is on.”).

No wonder we are kerfluxxed, reading about a man with no conscience, no empathy, no principles, not a shred of honesty, who presides with great indifference over a plague. As any New Yorker can tell you, the problem with the Trumps is that the 90% who are corrupt give the others a bad name. In Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, he got 10% of the vote. And now 38% of our fellow Americans think he’s doing okay when the disaster is out in the open for all to see. The body count is staggering. Vietnam does well, Japan, Italy, but America is a pitiful giant.

I’m locked up and don’t worry about catching the virus but at 78, I’m aware of mortality and can imagine going to the doctor and finding out I have a rare case of desiccated angiofibrosis of the fantods, four months to live, maybe six. I’d thank him and stop at the drugstore for a carton of Luckies and come home and get out the gin bottle.

I’d have a martini on the terrace, my first drink in eighteen years, and toss the lemon twist away and the mockingbirds would pick it up and immediately they’d calm down. With the screeching stopped, the fledglings would fly. My neighbors would smell the gin and knock on my door. I’d get out the shaker and martini glasses, and we’d have a party. They’re all liberals; they’ve lived on a fixed schedule of their children’s social, educational, recreational, and therapeutic engagements, and the gin would make us good and silly and we’d say things that don’t appear on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Things like “That which has been is that which shall be, there is nothing new under the sun” — these are Roman times, Nero is in power and he won’t relinquish it so long as the generals are loyal. He is half naked, and 38% of our people like him in just his underwear. Let the fledgling millennials talk about justice and equality, let the old man enjoy his gin and vermouth. These desiccated fantods are not going away. Nero is your problem, not mine. Hand me down another bag of pork rinds, darling, and I’ll put a porterhouse on the grill.

At a certain age, the blues comes naturally

I am a writing man, I got the sedentary blues. I need to take a walk soon as I find my shoes. I got a good woman and she gave me a talk. She said, “You’re going to need a walker if you don’t get out and walk.” I came to New York City to try to make my mark. Now I am an old man and I walk in Central Park. My heart was weary and my steps were getting slow. She said, “You’ve gone two blocks, you’ve got another mile to go.”

The pandemic had me shut up in our New York apartment since early March because the more I read about the virus, the less I cared to experience it personally so I stayed home and occupied myself with writing a novel and the main exercise I got was walking into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door.

I came to enjoy the cloistered life, the morning coffee on the terrace, talking with friends on the phone, recycling, the afternoon nap, the evening meal, the game of cards, the sunset, and what’s more, I enjoyed living with my keeper. Quarantine is a good test of marriage, such a good test that it could be made a requirement for obtaining a license, seclude the couple for thirty (30) days in a small apartment and see how they feel about each other afterward. Four months with my wife made me appreciate her beautiful heart and good humor even more. And a week ago, at her urging, I set foot outside the building for the first time and we hiked into the park.

After a long period of sitting, your legs feel like badly designed prosthetic devices made from tree stumps, and you feel unbalanced, and Jenny sensed that, of course, and took my hand, which was sweet, as if we were on our second date rather than in the 25th year of marriage. It’s endearing that she is completely focused on me, which you would be too if walking with a large person who might trip on a curb and collapse on top of you. Meanwhile, the young and beautiful lope effortlessly past us; I seem to have the distinction of being the Slowest Walker In Central Park, which reminds me of the Bob & Ray “Slow Talkers of America” sketch, in which Bob. Spoke. Very. Deliberately. So. As. To. Make. Each. Word. Perfectly. Clear. AndRayblewupinfuryandwantedtostranglehim.

New York is a strange city with show business, restaurants, the hospitality industry pretty much shut down. Few yellow cabs on the street, unemployment is at Depression level, and I suppose that plenty of those bicyclists whizzing past at 11 a.m. are waiters and stagehands and ticket agents, maybe dancers and musicians, and I feel for them. You’re in your twenties, you come to the big city with a big idea, maybe one so grandiose you don’t dare say it aloud, and suddenly a viral outbreak complicated by federal stupidity brings your life to a stop. Do you wait it out, expecting life to resume? Or do you sense that a Dark Age is on the way, that the face masks are permanent, that the Amazoning of America will go on, and the little mom-and-pops never reopen, the office towers remain half-empty as people go on working from home, and there will be no more concerts, no baseball, no handshakes except with life partners, we’ll live in communities of anonymity, and dystopia become the norm.

An old man thinks long thoughts while taking a long hike at a geezerish pace, but there is no sign of despair anywhere I look, only the happiness of dogs and little kids, the geese on the reservoir, the individual styles of runners, the grim determination of old lady joggers, and the saintliness of the slender woman holding my hand. “You’re doing great,” she says. “In a year, you’ll be running.” I think that unlikely but why rain on my own parade? Keep going.

I feel a slight wrench in my left knee and that upcoming park bench looks very good to me but I resist the urge to take a rest, aware a breather can become a siesta, so on I go with determination to stimulate my circulation. I do not run for love or glory but simply to be ambulatory and to enjoy these moving views and hope to lose the sedentary blues.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 9, 2020

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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