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.

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

 I am an old man chained to a computer and I get less exercise than your average statue in the park, meanwhile I avoid vegetables in favor of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, I seldom wash my hands and often rub my eyes, my daily water intake is less than that of a small lizard, and yet I feel pretty darned good, knock on wood, whereas certain people I know who lead exemplary lives of daily workouts and hydration and veganism complain of insomnia, sharp stabbing pains, exhaustion, gassiness, and memory loss, so where is the justice, I ask you. How is it that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

The answer is: I have an excellent doctor. I searched high and low for one, eliminating those with WASPy names like Postlethwaite or Dimbleby-Pritchett and those with old names (Amos, Portia, Naomi, Elijah) who maybe don’t know about antibiotics. I scratched very young doctors (Sean, Amber, Jared, Emerald) who maybe don’t understand geriatrics. I eliminated doctors who, when I called to inquire about an appointment, I was put on hold and heard flute music. I nixed doctors who had tassels on their shoes or whose M.D. degrees came from schools in Tahiti or Tijuana. And by the time I found a doctor, medical science had taken great leaps forward in the treatment of sedentary dehydrated germ-ridden men like me, so here I am.

My advice to the young is: Don’t sweat exercise. Eat what you want to eat. Live your life. Follow your heart. And be sure to marry well. I did that a quarter-century ago and it took me a while to realize it but now I feel buoyant around her and without her I’m just going through the motions. With her, I’m Mr. Successful, and without her I’m an old guy with soup stains on his shirt.

Thoreau said to advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and you’ll be successful, but he could’ve been more specific. He himself was a failure, as an author and as a lecturer and at finding a date for Saturday night. When he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was talking about himself. His classic, “Walden,” would’ve been a better book if there’d been a woman living in the cabin with him, but he only had a hard narrow bed and was more interested in mushrooms than in being a fun guy. And he was a Red Sox fan.

Scientists have pointed out that fans of losing teams experience a 20 percent drop in testosterone. A cruel thing. Your warriors go down to defeat and you get up from the TV and your wife comes and puts her arms around you and you think, “Oh no, not this again.”

I’ve been a fan of the Twins (78-84), the Golden Gophers (3-6), the Democratic Party (1 out of 4, counting the Supreme Court), and country music (he gets fired, his wife leaves him, he gets drunk, she runs off with a successful orthopedic surgeon) so I’m running low on testosterone, but there is hope. The lessons last Sunday in church said so. The prophet Isaiah said, “You shall be a crown of beauty. … You shall be called My Delight,” which nobody ever said to me before. The psalm was about feasting, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus did his magic trick turning water into wine at the wedding. I was absolved of my transgressions and I prayed for my daughter and for the infant Ida Rose, one week old, and afterward people around me reached over and shook my hand. I pulled out a five to put in the collection plate and saw too late that it was a twenty and the usher had seen it, so I let it go. Fifteen bucks for a sense of hope? Cheap at the price. And now I look out and see snow falling.

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

I take pleasure in the fact that the plastic bags from the grocery store exactly fit our garbage pail and so the garbage goes out the door in the same bag in which the food arrived. I derive pleasure from this. It isn’t about economy or conserving our plastic resources, no, it’s about symmetry. In, out; same bag. I don’t shop at the big fancy megamarkets: bags are wrong size.

I have just discovered that the best way to retrieve the last of the blueberry jam from the bottom of the jar is to use a teaspoon, not a knife. With the time I’ve spent over the years fishing up specks of jam with the tip of a knife, I could’ve written a very bad novella: a teaspoon gets the job done.

I sat through a four-hour performance of “Aida” with the ridiculous Act II procession of triumphant Egyptians hauling wagonloads of defeated Ethiopians through a set the size of the grain silos of Omaha, trumpet fanfares, four horses (count them, 1 2 3 4) on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, ballet dancers, spear-carriers, priests, the Met chorus in their robes and sandals singing the march, which sounds noble in Italian but the English is so dumb:
We won the war so we wear
The lotus and the laurel:
They smell good and we don’t care
If you think the war was immoral.
(My translation.)

It only made me think of high school commencements I have seen, but with singing instead of speaking.

The great transcendent moment of the opera is at the end. Aida and Radamès locked in the tomb, facing death, sing their farewell to this earth, a delicate ethereal duet that stays with you all the way home on the subway. The Met could’ve shown a movie for Act II, a scene from “Ben Hur,” and saved a half-million bucks.

I am a man with a small mind. (Am I repeating myself?) The major event of this week, plus the opera, was a joke told to me over the phone by a millennial feminist in San Francisco, a friend (I think) but who knows? She told me a joke I’d never dare tell to any woman under sixty. It is so incorrect, alarms go off, red lights flash, a semaphore drops. Do not read the following paragraph, please. Skip it and go to the end.

A woman decides to kill herself and goes out on the Brooklyn Bridge to jump and a sailor grabs her and cries, “No! You have much to live for! Listen. I’m sailing to Italy tonight. I’ll stow you aboard and take care of you and in ten days you’ll be in Naples.” The woman has always wanted to see Italy, so she says yes. The sailor takes her to the boat that night and stows her in a tiny cabin below decks and for a week, as the ship sails, he brings her food every night and they make love. Then one night the captain finds her: “What are you doing here?” She explains. “A wonderful sailor saved my life and he’s taking me to Italy and — he’s screwing me.” The captain says: “He sure is. This is the Staten Island Ferry.”

I explained to the m.f. that this is about date rape, it’s about sexual treachery, about male oppression. And she said, “I thought it was funny. It made me laugh.”

This is bigger news than the government shutdown. An m.f. told a joke because she thought it was funny. The world turns. Aida may yet be rescued. Do not stick a fork into a toaster. Call me a romantic but I believe that someday the Staten Island Ferry may sail to Italy and I hope to be aboard with my wife when it does and we’ll be very happy in a small cabin below decks.

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Senator Romney said last week, “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation,” and that is a bunch of hooey and horse manure. America has not suddenly become a nation of sleazy con men and compulsive liars. If anything, the presidency in its current state offers a valuable moral object lesson on an hourly basis. Senator Romney is way off base, like saying “To a great degree, a U.S. senator wields great influence on hair style.” I don’t see it. Children are growing up during this administration who are learning a good lesson: if you don’t know history and you can’t do math, you’re in deep water and there’s no way to hide it.

Goodness is lavished on the world from all sides. Small generosities engender tremendous force against the darker powers. Great kindness pervades our lives. The man at the newsstand says “Good morning” and “How is your day so far?” and he is from somewhere in the Middle East and I am warmed by his blessing. The woman at the café pours a cup of coffee, light, and toasts my sesame bagel and slathers it with cream cheese with scallions. I ask her how her day is so far and she smiles enormously and says, “Excellent, sweetheart.”  I’m in Penn Station, with my daughter, waiting for the train to Schenectady, and a Schenectadian tells me to be sure to visit the Nott Memorial at Union College, which I take as a joke — what is a memorial that is not? “N-o-t-t,” he says. “The guy who built the thing.” Schenectady is a depressed old factory town but here is a man who loves it and I have a perfect bagel and coffee and we two are about to embark on the 8:15 train. It is a very good morning and it is shaped by good people and God Almighty, not by the president. He is as irrelevant as Delaware, El Dorado, the Elks Club or L.S.M.F.T.

I have no business in Schenectady: the trip is my gift to my daughter who just turned 21 and who loves train rides. We’ll go up on the Adirondack and back to New York on the Lake Shore Limited, which used to be the 20th Century Limited, which Cary Grant rode in North By Northwest. I will sit by the window, point out the Tappan Zee Bridge, Poughkeepsie, Albany, and she will study the people around us. I’m a loner, she’s the sociable one, scoping out the neighbors. Up around Yonkers, she leans against me, scootches down, lays her head on my shoulder. She says, “I love you.” She falls asleep.

When I say “life is good,” I’m not talking about serenity. I’m not a guy who feels complete within himself and at home in the universe. I am talking about the basic animal goodness of having a mate — my wife, who doesn’t care for trains, enjoying her day alone in the city — and having a daughter who loves me and nestles against me. I was a neglectful father, obsessed with work, on the road, and yet I got this beautiful daughter, jokey, loyal, good company, affectionate. I want to warn her against men, their cruelty and treachery. When they’re not vulgar, they’re clueless. They are brutes and savages, all of them, and you should avoid them whenever possible, especially the shy and sensitive ones, they’re the worst, and if you decide to have one of your own, find one who seems trainable. This may take years. If he doesn’t show progress, kick him down the stairs and start over. This is what needs to happen in Washington. What are we waiting for? Hurl the bozo out on the street and his robotic vice president with him. Nancy Pelosi for president. Next week would not be too soon. Next stop, Schenectady.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 24, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 24, 2019

It’s the birthday of Edith Wharton (1862), who was the first woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, for her novel “The Age of Innocence.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

It was on this day in 1977 that the miniseries “Roots” premiered on ABC. Restaurants and shops cleared out while it was showing, and bars showed it on their TVs in order to keep customers there.

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A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

This week, huddle close together for another stream of a classic winter episode! With special guests Chuck Mead, Becky Schlegel, Nellie McKay, and humorist Roy Blount Jr. (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

Today is the birthday of British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788), who was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by one of his many lovers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983, following years of activists’ petitions, conferences, and advocacy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

It’s the birthday of the late Susan Vreeland (1946), whose novels, such as “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” intersected with alternate histories of art.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

Today is the birthday of Edwidge Danticat (Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1969), author of “Krik? Krack!” and the upcoming short story collection “Everything Inside.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of Rubén Darío (1867), a great poet in the Spanish-speaking world who is barely known to English speakers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” premiered on this day in 1904. He had meant for it to be a comedy, and was annoyed that the director had presented it as a tragedy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

On this day in 1605, Book One of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was published. The novel remains the most-translated book in the world after the Bible.

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Writing

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

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Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

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A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

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Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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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?).

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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.

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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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